POSITION PROFILE: Defenders

Moving along in our Position Profiles series. Yesterday we looked at goalkeepers. Today we’re talking defenders. (NOTE: This is an updated and edited version of a post that originally appeared on SpeedwaySoccer.com.)

Expansion teams concede lots of goals. That’s a reality of Major League Soccer. The record for most goals conceded in a single season was set last year by expansion side FC Cincinnati at 75 goals allowed, breaking the previous record of 70 set by Minnesota United in their debut season. The past six expansion sides have conceded an average of 59 goals in their first year, and only one (Atlanta United – 40) has allowed less than 50.

Nashville SC was very aware of this going into their first year. “Most expansion teams in every sport are like sieves as far as giving goals away,” said General Manager Mike Jacobs in an August interview with Speedway Soccer. “For us, to start an expansion team in MLS, contrary to these successful teams like LAFC or Atlanta, the reality is that most expansion teams fail miserably their first year.”

Enter Gary Smith. The English manager has earned a reputation as a defensive coach (a rather lazy narrative, in my opinion). A lot of this stems from his MLS Cup-winning Colorado Rapids side, which didn’t play the most attractive style of soccer, but was actually fairly average defensively (5th best in the league). His Nashville SC sides in USL were elite defensively (fewest goals conceded in 2019, second-fewest in 2018), but were also strong on the other end of the field (most goals scored in the Eastern Conference in 2019).

Jacobs has pushed back on the idea of Nashville setting up as a purely defensive team, but the reality is that Nashville are setting up to be a stingy, hard working, counter attacking team. We’ll look at how the attack is shaping up in a later installment, but for now, let’s take a look at how the backline currently looks.

Nashville SC currently have 12 defenders on their roster. Six of these players were acquired from within MLS, two were brought up from Nashville’s 2019 USL Championship side, two were acquired internationally, and two were selected in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. Smith has options to play in a back four or a back five, both systems he used at times in USL.

Nashville’s options in a back four (left) and a back five (right).

Nashville went out and spent big to shore up their defense through the middle. Walker Zimmerman cost a league-record $1.25 million to acquire from LAFC, and rewarded Nashville with the first goal in club history.

Zimmerman’s performances with LAFC and FC Dallas have pushed him into the elite tier of MLS center-backs. He’s strong in the tackle, good at marking in space, and elite in the air. As important as his defending is his ability from attacking set pieces. Since he entered the league in 2013, only three defenders have scored more from set-pieces than Zimmerman. In addition to scoring Nashville’s only goal of 2020, Zimmerman was one of their more consistent attackers – only Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal have a better xG total than the defender. Effective on both sides of the ball, Zimmerman will be a core piece of this roster for several years to come.

Dave Romney played a limited role in a poor LA Galaxy defense, but the team had better results with Romney on the field (1.69 points in matches Romney played at least 5 minutes, 1.45 points without him).

He’s bounced between roles on the left and in the center, but Romney’s stats per 96 show a defender who’s above average in possession. He’s a decent defender, but his real strength is with the ball at his feet, capable of playing out of a press and breaking lines with a pass. From the two games we’ve seen, he seems like a great partner for Walker Zimmerman.

Miguel Nazarit was just signed from Once Calderas in Colombia. At 22 years old, Nazarit is a young, high-upside center back with plenty of experience at the youth national team level. Nazarit may not start the season as a starter (Jacobs: he “has the potential to be a key contributor in our team”), but he’s on a TAM-level contract, meaning the club values him highly enough to pay him over the max budget charge of $530,000. Detailed stats from the Colombian first division aren’t easy to come by, but from his highlight package he looks like a defender who will cover ground and will be hard to beat 1v1.

Eddie Segura joined LAFC from the Colombian first division at the same age as Nazarit, and hasn’t been as consistently involved with the youth national team as Nazarit. It’s a major assumption to think that Nazarit will be as effective as Segura, but that seems like the hope the club has for him.

Jack Maher is another high-upside young player. Taken with the second overall pick in the 2020 SuperDraft, he’s a two-footed central defender who’s smart positionally, stronger than he looks, and really, really good in possession. He’s really young and lacks experience at the pro level, but the talent is undeniable. Initially loaned to Charlotte Independence in the USL Championship, Maher was recalled ahead of the MLSisBack Tournament. It remains to be seen how much he’ll play this season, but should either Zimmerman or Romney miss time, he’ll be in contention to slot into their role.

Nashville have lots of depth at left-back. That’s not something that many MLS sides can say, and definitely not many expansion sides. Still, Nashville have proven options on the left.

Daniel Lovitz was acquired from Montreal, and has been a regular on the US National Team under Gregg Berhalter.

Lovitz is a winger-turned-fullback who has typically been better going forward than defending. In Gary Smith’s USL team, it wasn’t uncommon to see one fullback more involved in the attack, and Lovitz makes sense to be the more attack-minded option. His expected assist and pass quality numbers don’t jump off the graph, but his progressive passes (passes gaining >25% of the distance remaining to the goal) are impressive and he’s really strong on the ball.

Another option on the left is Jimmy Medranda, who is a game changing talent when able to get on the field. Injuries have been an issue his entire career, but he looked back to full health towards the end of 2019.

For a player who’s primarily drawn attention for his attacking contributions, those are really solid defensive numbers for Medranda. He has high-level acceleration and puts in a ton of work to recover the ball, and he’s ambitious with his passing, able to quickly turn and play a line-breaking pass. Medranda is a capable of playing further forward on the left or as a central midfielder, but if he’s able to stay healthy, don’t be surprised if he challenges for the starting job on the left, especially if Nashville use a back three more consistently.

Brayan Beckeles is another international signing, brought in from Olimpia in Honduras after stints in Portugal and Mexico and has over 60 appearances for the Honduran national team, including three in the 2010 World Cup. At 34 years old he’s able to play both right back and center back. Based solely on his profile, he seems likely to be a key member of Nashville’s backline, although his age raises some questions as to how many minutes he’ll be able to play on the right. Gary Smith often shifted fullbacks into a more central role in a back three (Justin Davis and Darnell King being prime examples), and Beckeles seems to be a likely option to shift centrally if Smith uses this system.

As with Nazarit, detailed stats are hard to find for Beckeles’ most recent campaign, but making 37 appearances in Liga MX just over a year ago isn’t a bad sign as far as durability and quality.

Nashville have two utility players in Eric Miller and Jalil Anibaba.

Miller is primarily a right back, but is able to play anywhere across the back line. The starter for Nashville’s first two matches, his play was relatively consistent, apart from two mistakes that contributed to conceding goals.

He struggled for consistent minutes after joining NYCFC from Minnesota, and his numbers in 2019 weren’t spectacular. He’s a strong depth piece, and a good option to have off the bench. With Beckeles not fully fit to start the year, and a rookie option still finding his footing, Miller made sense to start on the right. Who knows, he may hold down the position for the rest of the season, but with more viable options now, I suspect he’ll have to work hard to keep his spot.

Anibaba is an MLS veteran with 224 appearances in his nine seasons in the league, and he’s coming off arguably his best season, becoming a key part of New England’s push into the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

The graph is a bit skewed, as Anibaba spent most of 2019 as a left back, but he’s strong defensively and still capable of playing on either flank. He’s not the most spectacular name in MLS, but he’s a really strong option at three positions. He’ll likely see plenty of minutes in 2020.

Taylor Washington and Ken Tribbett were both signed from Nashville’s 2019 USL squad. “Because of that vast difference in standards, we’ll probably try to under promise the roles that these guys have and hope that they’re able to find their way with the other group,” said Jacobs. Reading between the lines, it would seem that the four players signed from the USL side will primarily start as depth pieces, with chances to earn a bigger role.

Lastly, Alistair Johnston is an intriguing prospect at right-back. Drafted out of Wake Forest, he has pace to spare and is very highly rated within Nashville’s technical staff. He played central and right midfield a good bit in college before moving to right back, and his versatility bodes well for his chances of getting on the field this season.

Smith’s system isn’t be overly complex, but his defenders will move the ball quickly, stay compact, and each player will understand their specific role and how it fits in the bigger picture. Pre-pandemic, conceding 50-55 goals in 34 matches seemed like a reasonable goal. In the coming 18-match regular season, conceding 30 goals or less should be the target. That will at least keep Nashville competitive.

Stay tuned for a look at Nashville’s holding midfielders tomorrow.

Thanks to our friends at American Soccer Analysis for the data. Make sure to follow them at @analysisevolved and check out their work at americansocceranalysis.com.

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