Position profile: attacking midfielders

We’re continuing our yearly position profile series with a look at Nashville SC’s attacking midfielders. For the purpose of simplicity, I’m including wingers in this category. As with our forwards profile, I’ll try to go in depth chart order, from left to right across the “three line” in Gary Smith’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

Previous entries

Forwards


Randall Leal

24 years old – 24 appearances – 1981 minutes
46 shots – 4 goals – 2.54 xG – 13 key passes – 1 assist – 2.07 xA – -0.06 G+
Casey Gower-Broadway Sports

One of Nashville’s three DPs, Leal is the clear first-choice option on the left wing, and the primary backup to Hany Mukhtar in the 10 role. While he endured a fairly slow start to his MLS career, he found his form around the midseason mark, and was a major part of Nashville’s resurgence down the stretch.

He’s a hard nosed, hard working midfielder on both sides of the ball who will track back and do the defensive work, but still has the energy to get forward and make himself available in the final third. He likes to drift inside to the half spaces and create from a more central area, instead of hugging the touchline. Cutting in on his favoured right foot, he’s never afraid to pull the trigger.

While his first season in MLS had its ups and downs, he finished the year as the league’s 13th best winger in terms of xG+xA per 96, and was in the top 15 in every other major category.

Leal missed most of preseason on international duty, starting every match of Costa Rica’s Olympic qualifying campaign. While Gary Smith would have liked to have him in camp, he played in three meaningful, competitive matches. That’s more than anyone else on the squad can say. It will hopefully mean that he comes into the year in closer to mid-season form, and hits the ground running. He was really exceptional to close out 2020, and developed a strong relationship with Hany Mukhtar and Jhonder Cádiz. Picking up where he left off and avoiding another slow start is paramount to Nashville’s early success.

Hany Mukhtar

26 years old – 18 appearances – 1468 minutes
41 shots – 5 goals – 4.73 xG – 14 key passes – 3 assists – 0.76 xA – -0.15 G+
Casey Gower-Broadway Sports

Simply put, this is Mukhtar’s team.

He struggled with injuries last year, and took a while to adapt to MLS. But the last eight weeks of the regular season showed what he’s capable of, and what Nashville need him to be this season. He’s excellent in transition. In an open field, he’s absolutely lethal.

Courtesy American Soccer Analysis

I know Nashville have made an effort to push their lines higher in the offseason, and to try to break teams down with the ball more. He can do that. But he’s at his best on the break. He receives the ball really, really well and has a great understanding of space.

Mukhtar really came to life when paired with Cádiz. Cádiz draws a lot of attention from defenders, and opened up all kinds of space underneath for Mukhtar. In between the lines, Mukhtar is able to turn and face goal quickly, get his head up, and pick out passes into space. That’s what Nashville will need from him on a consistent basis to take the next step in the final third.

If he can stay healthy this season and get on the field for 2,300 minutes or so, I really don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect him to hit double digit goals and assists.

Alex Muyl

25 years old – 21 appearances – 1530 minutes
22 shots – 0 goals – 2.54 xG – 6 key passes – 1 assist – 0.60 xA – -1.50 G+
Casey Gower-Broadway Sports

Muyl is really an ideal fit for Gary Smith’s system. He may not always be flashy, or even always put up stats that look especially productive, but he adds a lot of value to this team.

No surprise for a player coming out of the New York Red Bulls system, he works really hard on both sides of the ball. He constantly has the energy to press defenders, and with Alistair Johnston providing cover behind him, he and Mukhtar combined to really lead Nashville’s press.

His final product could use some improvement. His crossing was fairly inaccurate in 2020, and too often he hesitates to take a shot. However, his production improved as the season went on, and by several accounts he’s been one of the standouts in preseason. Even with new signings like Rodrigo Piñeiro and Handwalla Bwana coming in to provide more attacking threat, Muyl won’t be pushed out of the XI easily, and will be a contributor throughout the season.

Handwalla Bwana

21 years old – 10 appearances – 294 minutes
5 shots – 1 goal – 1.76 xG – 1 key passes – 0 assists – 0.05 xA – 0.89 G+
Casey Gower-Broadway Sports

Bwana was a late season addition in 2020. He played a handful of games for Nashville, but in effect he’s like a new signing for 2021. At 21 years old, he’s just now coming into his own and has already put up pretty impressive numbers so far in MLS.

He offers a nice change of pace from the rest of Nashville’s wingers. While Leal is more of a playmaker and Piñeiro will hug the touchline and stretch the field, Bwana is a tricky player who likes to isolate defenders and take them on one-v-one. He operated exclusively off the bench for Nashville last year, but with more time to find his footing and others ahead of him likely to miss time with international duty, there’s a real chance he could work himself into starting contention. That was certainly the hope when Nashville traded for him.

Rodrigo Piñeiro

21 years old – 17 appearances (Uruguayan Primera División) – 1530 minutes
5 shots – 3 goals – 1 assists
Courtesy Nashville SC

Nashville’s biggest signing of the offseason arrives to big expectations. Those expectations will need to be tempered, though. Players typically take a while to adapt to MLS, and Gary Smith has made it clear that while Piñeiro has plenty of potential, he also has a lot of work to do to earn his place in the squad.

Piñeiro has been described as “different from anyone else on our roster” by general manager Mike Jacobs. He’s an out-and-out winger. He’ll stay wide to receive the ball and try to isolate defenders, before using his pace to create a yard of space for a cross or a shot.

He’s a significant investment for Nashville; he’ll be officially confirmed either as a Young DP or a U22 Initiative player by their roster compliance date on Friday. But he needs time to adapt. He’ll almost certainly start the season behind Muyl and even Bwana on the depth chart, hopefully growing into more minutes as the year goes on.

Luke Haakenson

23 years old – 18 appearances (USL Championship) – 1085 minutes
21 shots – 3 goals – 2.50 xG – 9 key passes – 2 assists – 1.33 xA – 0.19 G+
Courtesy Nashville SC

A fourth-round pick in last year’s SuperDraft, Haakenson spent 2020 on loan with Charlotte Independence in the USL Championship. He’s primarily a left winger, but can play anywhere across the front four, as well as in a deeper midfield role. He’s largely flown under the radar after going so late in the draft, but he’s worked his way into contention for real, meaningful minutes this year.

Both Gary Smith and Mike Jacobs have name dropped him several times as a top performer in preseason, and sources say he has really started to earn Gary’s trust. While he started preseason on the fringe, don’t be surprised if he forces his way into the conversation.

On the flip side, there’s also a chance he doesn’t break into the first team and is sent back out on loan to USL, where he’d be an every week starter. Either way, Nashville feel they have a really good player in Haakenson, and he’ll be in the picture here for a while.


We’ll continue our player profile series tomorrow with a look at Nashville’s central midfielders.

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