Today, Nashville SC announced its year-end roster moves as the club takes its first steps toward the 2022 season.
Already under contract
Handwalla Bwana, Aké Loba, Jack Maher, Hany Mukhtar, Miguel Nazarit, Rodrigo Piñeiro, Daniel Ríos, Dave Romney, CJ Sapong, Joe Willis, Walker Zimmerman
Signed new contracts
Brian Anunga, Aníbal Godoy, Dax McCarty, Randall Leal, Dan Lovitz
Robert Castellanos, Irakoze Donasiyano, Luke Haakenson, Alistair Johnston, Eric Miller, Alex Muyl, Dylan Nealis, Elliot Panicco, Taylor Washington
David Accam, Nick Hinds, Tom Judge, Matt LaGrassa, Brian Meredith, Tor Saunders
Out of contract
Jalil Anibaba, Abu Danladi
While none of the contract decisions were exceptionally surprising, they do create a significant impact for the club. Combined, the club shed approximately $2.8 million dollars in payroll from its books with the salary cap relief depending on the salary offset amount previously received for David Accam while on loan with Hammarby IF. Beyond the expense reduction, Nashville opened several roster slots and MLS budget mechanisms that can now be used to add significant pieces to Nashville’s roster.
Designated Player slot opens
The initial discussion will center squarely on Jhonder Cádiz. He has been a polarizing player in blue and gold since arriving on loan from Benfica in the middle of the 2020 season. The towering striker scored five goals for Nashville but largely failed to live up the expectations bestowed on a Designated Player (“DP”). Nashville reportedly held a $3 million dollar purchase option for his rights. But triggering the purchase option never seemed in the cards as it would lock in Cádiz as a DP for several years.
Declining to trigger the purchase option for Jhonder Cádiz opens up several MLS budget mechanisms for General Manager Mike Jacobs. Obviously, Cádiz’s departure immediately opens up a Designated Player slot for Nashville SC. Two of the three DP slots are currently filled by Hany Mukhtar and Aké Loba.
By opening the third slot, Nashville has the ability to target a significant transfer either this offseason or in the summer of 2022 to add to the roster. But I would not necessarily expect a new DP signing this winter. Nashville’s biggest transfers tend to occur during the summer transfer window when there is a greater level of activity in the global transfer market. As we’ve seen before, though, if the right player comes along, Jacobs certainly will not shy away.
Two U22 initiative slots now open
Freeing up a Designated Player slot also opens two U22 Initiative slots for Nashville SC. The U22 Initiative, also known as the “Young Money” rule, is a newer roster mechanism that MLS introduced at the start of 2021. The U22 Initiative allows clubs to acquire up to three players under 22 years old for a significantly reduced budget charge. The U22 Initiative is set up to encourage MLS teams to sign talented youngsters, develop them, and sell them outside MLS for a profit.
Also, was able to confirm that current plan is to limit the number of Young Money players based on DP situations.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) February 19, 2021
Teams with 3 DPs over age 23 who cannot be bought down with TAM will be limited to 1 Young Money player. Everyone else can sign up to 3. https://t.co/Hpmjru8yDT
By no longer carrying three senior-level Designated Players, Nashville SC can now make two additional U22 Initiative signings. Rodrigo Piñeiro occupies the first U22 Initiative slot, signed from Danubio last winter for a reported $1.7 million. While he saw limited action in 2021, the club certainly will hope to see a greater impact from the young winger in the future.
I expect Nashville to add at least one U22 Initiative signing this offseason. I have been a vocal proponent of using one of the U22 Initiative slots to find a potential heir apparent to Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy. One of the big offseason priorities outlined by my colleague Ben Wright was for Nashville to get younger in the midfield.
Adding a young central midfielder that can serve as an understudy to Godoy and McCarty would be a shrewd move for Mike Jacobs. There is a wealth of knowledge sitting in the soccer brains of Nashville’s veteran midfield pivot that could help a young midfielder reach their full potential.
Accam departure saves Targeted Allocation Money
Completely eliminating David Accam’s salary not only saves club owner John Ingram money, it also locks in savings of a significant amount of Targeted Allocation Money (“TAM”). TAM is used to “buy down” the budget charge for players that make above the Maximum Salary Budget Charge of $612,500. If allocation money is not used to buy down the budget charge of a player earning above this threshold, the player would have to count as a Designated Player.
To buy down the full impact of Accam’s salary, Nashville applied up to $490,000 in TAM each season. Accam’s loan to Hammarby IF this season may have reduced this figure for 2021. But by confirming Accam’s departure, Nashville frees up a significant chunk of TAM which could be used to add a highly paid player to its roster this offseason.
Churning the bottom of the roster
Beyond the higher-priced departures like Cádiz and Accam, guys like Matt LaGrassa and Jalil Anibaba immediately stand out. LaGrassa is a club pillar having been with Gary Smith since Nashville’s first season in USL. Anibaba is, by all accounts, a trusted bench piece and a solid locker room guy. Both LaGrassa and Anibaba are reliable role players and the type of player that managers and supporters develop an affection for. It is tough to watch them depart.
But in the cutthroat world of professional sports, churn of serviceable players at the roster’s periphery is increasingly the tactic of “moneyball” general managers.
Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs is a self-professed moneyball nerd. It is okay. My column will always be a safe space for such types. Jacobs identified his “moneyball” influences in a 2019 interview with Jeff Rueter of The Athletic:
Ask Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs, among the league’s newest American hires to the position, to assess his approach to building the expansion club’s inaugural roster, and three names get mentioned most. The first is very much expected: Peter Vermes, who Jacobs worked with at Sporting Kansas City as an assistant technical director from 2015 to 2017. The other two are less common in soccer circles: Billy Beane, the pioneer of Moneyball in Major League Baseball, and Daryl Morey, who took those lessons to the NBA and built the Houston Rockets with “Moreyball.”Jeff Rueter, “Moneyball in MLS: Nashville GM Mike Jacobs on maximizing the undervalued” (The Athletic, November 16 2020)
Roster churn is a fundamental tactic of the front office influencers that Jacobs cites as inspiring his own way of thinking about roster management. The Oakland Athletics’ Billy Beane, one of Jacob’s listed influences, was profiled back in 2015 for his team’s constant roster churn that leads to upheaval but allows the small-market Athletics to regularly make the playoffs.
Billy Beane’s partner in Oakland, Paul DePodesta (portrayed by Jonah Hill in the film Moneyball), subscribes to the same philosophy. Now the Chief Strategy Officer for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, DePodesta established institutional guardrails that have guided the team’s rise from perennial bottom dweller to playoff winners a year ago. One of the key tenants within the “moneyball” guardrails is “Churn the Bottom of the Roster.”
The roster churn allows Beane and his “moneyball” disciples more opportunities to exploit market inefficiencies, whether that be young players on rookie contracts or acquiring undervalued league veterans.
Given Jacob’s influences, it should not be surprising to see a constant churn of the periphery of Nashville’s roster. By parting with club veterans who contribute but may not play vital roles, Nashville opens space for youngsters to potentially level up and to acquire new players from around the American soccer landscape who may find a spark in the Music City.
With the departures of Anibaba and LaGrassa, it certainly provides an opportunity for Robert Castellanos and Irakoze Donasiyano to stake a claim for more playing time. But the space also gives Jacobs room to add undervalued MLS veterans that may help the club in new ways. Mike Jacobs’ successful roster builds have been predicated on finding undervalued MLS veterans. C.J. Sapong, Dave Romney, Daniel Lovitz, Anibal Godoy, and Dax McCarty all were acquired for pennies compared to their level of production in Nashville.
With several roster spots to fill after today’s announcement, there is plenty of room in Nashville’s locker room and within the budget for Mike Jacobs to work a little magic and find undervalued players, like a C.J. Sapong, that can make an outsized impact in 2022.