Nashville SC are in full offseason mode, already looking ahead to the 2023 season and beginning the roster building process.
They qualified for the playoffs for the third consecutive year. That’s good. They also have some clear weaknesses in their roster that held them back. Hany Mukhtar is the best player in MLS. Walker Zimmerman is one of the best center backs. Players like this don’t come along often, and when they do, their production isn’t often sustainable for multiple seasons.
Mukhtar doesn’t look like he’ll slow down anytime soon and is just entering his prime, and Walker Zimmerman has proved that he can sustain this level. But all good things are finite. Nashville have to take advantage of them while they’re performing at elite levels and build an MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield-winning squad around them. There are a few ways to do this.
1. Offload Aké Loba
This one is brutally, painfully obvious. Aké Loba is one of the biggest busts in MLS in recent memory.
Brought in for $6.8 million from Mexican giants Monterrey, his transfer fee was 239% more than what Nashville paid for Mukhtar. After signing in July 2021, he was slow to adapt, but the rhetoric from the club was that he was always a long-term signing, fully expected to improve and contribute in 2022.
He didn’t. He was worse in 2022 than he was in 2021. He played just 421 minutes in a full season in 2022, astonishingly less than the 478 minutes he played in a half season in 2021.
43 appearances. 1,050 minutes. Three goals. Two assists. 10 shots. An unused substitute in all four playoff games. Aké Loba was an abject failure in Nashville. They can’t afford to hold onto him for the final year of his contract.
Whether it’s by selling him at a loss, loaning him out, buying out his contract, or leaving him unproteced and hoping St. Louis take him in the Expansion Draft, he can’t be on the roster on opening day of the 2023 MLS season.
2. Sign a DP striker and get it right
Nashville have swung and missed on their last two DP forwards; Loba (discussed above) and Jhonder Cádiz, who retrospectively doesn’t seem that bad. Add Rodrigo Piñeiro into the mix, and Nashville’s last three high-profile international attackers have cost a collective $9.2 million and contributed four league goals and two assists in 1,702 minutes. They can’t afford another miss.
C.J. Sapong’s hot streak last summer both papered over some of the cracks while also potentially stunting Cádiz and Loba’s development, and then completely tapered off in 2022. They had no sustained production from forwards in 2022. I’m beating a dead horse here, but it was bad. They can’t do that again in 2023.
The elite sides in MLS have multiple forwards who can get close to 10 goals in a season. If Nashville want to do more than just squeeze into the playoffs and have a 50/50 shot at advancing in the playoffs, they need to rebuild their attack with a high-level DP striker who can both lift the team and give Hany Mukhtar the partner he deserves.
Maybe Nashville are content to be a mid-table playoff team every year. Their front office has certainly publicly said as much. But the players want more. Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman have said they want more. And spending almost $7 million on Loba seems to say that despite publicly trying to lower expectations, the front office actually wants to compete for more than just a home playoff spot every year.
The first step is signing a DP forward and getting the signing right.
3. Get younger and more forward-thinking in midfield
I want to get this out of the way off the bat. Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy have been vital for Nashville. McCarty was solid once again in 2022, and though injured, Godoy was good when he played. Sean Davis was a huge signing and did exactly what he was brought to do.
87% of minutes in Nashville’s midfield were played by Davis, McCarty and Godoy. All three are 30 or older. And none of them are particularly “attack-minded”. McCarty less than the rest, they have fairly similar profiles, more along the lines of a traditional six. Nashville need a younger box-to-box midfielder who can contribute defensively, but be a more progressive option in midfield.
This team struggles to break down teams in possession, especially when their opponents sit deep and keep the game in front of them. Aside from McCarty, who will turn 36 early next season, none of their midfielders can consistently pick out line-breaking passes.
They could shell out $2 million in General Allocation Money to try and bring in Eryk Williamson from Portland. They could look outside MLS. They could take another swing at a U22 initiative signing. However they do it, they need to address midfield.
4. Figure out what to do on the wings
Part of this has been addressed with Jacob Shaffelburg. The 22-year-old Canadian international was a nice spark for Nashville down the stretch, and they’re set to pick up his purchase option from Toronto FC.
Can he be a starting-caliber player for an MLS Cup contender for a full season, though? It’s a good question. There are questions on the opposite flank, too, with Randall Leal scoring just twice in 2022, his lowest tally in three seasons.
Leal had been a fairly consistent producer in his first two years, but took a worrying step back in year three. Injuries didn’t help, but at the end of the day, the production wasn’t enough from one of the highest-paid players in the squad.
Aside from Leal and Shaffelburg, Nashville have two workmanlike wide players in Luke Haakenson and Alex Muyl, but neither can really be categorized as a game changer in attack. Both are great to bring on when you need to see out a lead, but when you need a goal with 10 minutes left?
Nashville need to bring in a winger who won’t just provide a spark off the bench, but push Leal and Shaffelburg for a starting spot. Again, it’s coming back to secondary scoring. Nashville need more attacking threats besides Hany Mukhtar.
Nashville had 44 goals and primary assists from forwards and wingers in 2022. That’s merely the 12th-best contribution in MLS, despite having the Golden Boot winner play striker for the entire year. That has to change.
Nashville are close
The point of this article isn’t to hit the panic button, spread doom and gloom heading into the offseason, and rehash all the issues that were so obvious this season. Quite the opposite.
Nashville have the best attacker in MLS. They have one of the best center backs in the league. Even in a down year, their defense was the fourth-best in the league. The core pieces are largely there. They’re two or three key signings away from moving past being a good, mid-table side to challenging for more.
The margins are thin in MLS. Rapid improvement happens regularly. Nashville aren’t far away from being great. But they have to be proactive and aggressive to address their issues and make the most of the window they have with their top-end talent in their primes.
It would be a shame if Mukhtar and Zimmerman eventually leave Nashville having spent their best years with a team simply content to qualify for the playoffs every year.