The 2021 offseason has looked much different for Nashville than the prior year. Last winter, General Manager Mike Jacobs and co. were tasked with putting together an MLS roster from scratch. Now, coming off a successful expansion season featuring one of the league’s best defenses, it’s been a relatively quiet offseason so far.
Nashville’s roster currently stands at 22 players, with five additional players selected in the SuperDraft. Those players have yet to sign MLS contracts, though, and not all five are guaranteed to make the final roster. Meanwhile, right-back Eric Miller is still in negotiations to return for 2021.
Nashville SC roster as of February 5, 2021:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Joe Willis, Elliot Panicco, Tor Saunders*
DEFENDERS (9): Dan Lovitz, Jalil Anibaba, Dave Romney, Alistair Johnston, Jack Maher, Taylor Washington, Walker Zimmerman, Tom Judge*, Sondre Norheim*
MIDFIELDERS (11): Dax McCarty, Randall Leal, Rodrigo Piñeiro, Hany Mukhtar, Aníbal Godoy, Matt LaGrassa, Luke Haakenson, Brian Anunga, Alex Muyl, Handwalla Bwana, Irakoze Donasiyano*
FORWARDS (5): Abu Danladi, Dominique Badji, Daniel Ríos, Jhonder Cádiz, Leroy Enzugusi*
*SuperDraft selection, not yet signed to MLS contract
Areas of depth: wing, striker, outside back
New signing Rodrigo Piñeiro will give Nashville a real boost. Their winger depth was already strong, but outside of Randall Leal, they didn’t bring a ton of production in the final third. Alex Muyl was signed midway through the 2020 season, and he’s a starting quality player. He’s not consistently a goal threat from the wings, but he has a tremendous workrate, and should still see plenty of action.
Nashville traded for Handwalla Bwana late in the season, and while he made a handful of appearances, his signing was geared towards the future. He has plenty of potential, and showed that in brief moments off the bench. While he might not earn a starting role this year, he should be one of the first names off the bench, along with Abu Danladi, who can play centrally as well as on the wing.
Striker Jhonder Cádiz is on loan from Benfica through July, with Nashville holding a purchase option they can trigger at any time. He arrived in Nashville late in September and hadn’t played for nine months, so what he showed in 2020 shouldn’t be a true representation of his ability. Still, he managed to score two goals in under 500 minutes, and looked like a potential solution to some of Nashville’s scoring issues. He’ll need to impress early in the season, though, to warrant a permanent move.
Daniel Ríos started the season behind Dom Badji on the depth chart, but outperformed Badji in front of goal, scoring five goals to tie for the team lead. While he’ll likely start 2021 behind Cádiz, he could challenge for starting minutes if his form continues. If not, he’s a very solid option to bring on late in games, and will be a major contributor for Nashville.
Once again, outside back is a position of strength. Dan Lovitz and Alistair Johnston are both quality starting options, and Taylor Washington proved last season that he’s a capable deputy on the left, in addition to playing in a more advanced role.
On the opposite flank, first round SuperDraft pick Irakoze Donasiyano spent most of his college career in central midfield or on the wing, but has been tipped for a role at outside back by Mike Jacobs. Nashville rate him highly, enough that they felt comfortable trading Derrick Jones with Donasiyano incoming. He should factor in at right-back, as well as in a couple other roles.
Areas of need: center midfield, attacking midfield, center-back
Center midfield is the most glaring area for Nashville. Behind Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy, Brian Anunga really emerged last season as a reliable option, who could grow into a starting role down the road. Aside from Anunga, Matt LaGrassa is the other name on the list. He was a standout USL midfielder, and did a job last season in MLS last season, managing just over 400 minutes.
If Godoy and McCarty miss time simultaneously this season, though, it would be an issue. Anunga could slot into one of their roles, and while Nashville are high on Donasiyano’s potential in midfield, it’s a risk to go into the season without a more proven option at the position. It wouldn’t be a surprised to see Nashville use some of the nearly $1 million in GAM they’ve acquired to address this.
In the attacking midfield-slash-center forward spot, Hany Mukhtar is the clear option. He’ll start there if he’s healthy. There’s not a clear reserve to him, and there wasn’t last year, either. Thus Derrick Jones played out of position for most of the year. However, Piñeiro’s signing should have a ripple effect. The increased depth on the wings means that sliding Leal over to fill in for Mukhtar when needed won’t hamstring Nashville out wide. A Muyl-Leal-Piñeiro combination isn’t a disheartening prospect.
Lastly, center-back; Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney are the “chisel their name in stone” pairing, and they’ll start every game they’re available. Last year, though, the pandemic meant that Nashville didn’t have to balance international duty on top of the regular season. That won’t be the case in 2021, with the US Men’s National Team set for a really busy schedule.
Jack Maher began to see more time before a knee injury put him out of action down the stretch, and Jalil Anibaba is more than capable of stepping up in the center or on either flank. Either one of them should be able to slide into the XI without a massive drop in quality when Zimmerman is unavailable.
SuperDraft pick Sondre Norheim is the only other center-back in the squad. It may not be a pressing need, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Nashville look for another reserve option, potentially from USL.
At this point, we know what we’re going to get from Nashville: a sound defensive team with some young attacking options and a fairly consistent floor. While Nashville has a few depth issues, on paper their starting XI seems to be in a pretty solid place.
We saw last year that Nashville won’t rush to make moves, but are patient in the transfermarket. This philosophy won’t change anytime soon. While Nashville will make a couple more signings before the season starts, they’ll also likely keep a hefty chunk of GAM and a few roster spots open to make mid-season signings as needed.
Nashville weren’t flashy in 2020. Their solid defensive structure kept them competitive, even when their attack floundered. In 2021, they’ve maintained that defensive core, and have added some pieces to raise the threshold of their offensive output. They probably won’t set the league scoring record anytime soon, but they should put the ball in the back of the net more consistently than they did last year. Even marginal improvement in the final third could elevate Nashville in the table.
With a better attack and a still-elite defense, Nashville SC should have their sights set on a second consecutive playoff berth. And once they get to the playoffs, they’re a team no one wants to play.