We’re wrapping up our Position Profile series with a look at Nashville SC’s forwards. (NOTE: This is an edited and updated version of a piece that was originally published on SpeedwaySoccer.com)
After two matches and a five month pandemic break, we’re asking the same question now as we were before the season. Will Nashville SC be able to score enough goals to keep them competitive in their inaugural season?
Nashville have four strikers currently on their roster.
Dominique Badji was acquired from FC Dallas for a total of $325,000 in allocation money (plus another $75,000 in GAM if certain performance conditions are met). Badji is a five year MLS veteran, playing with both Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. He’s been a regular starter at both clubs, but has never reached double digit goals in a single season.
Badji’s 2019 xG looks pretty good, but a lot of that was skewed by playing on the wing for most of the season in Dallas. He’s naturally more of a center forward, but was pushed wide in a Dallas system that was never a good fit for him as a player. To date, his best single-season output came in 2018, when he scored nine goals. Seven of those came in 16 matches for Colorado, before a mid-season trade sent him to Dallas, and all of his goals came while playing as a center forward.
Abu Danladi was selected by Nashville in the first round of the 2019 Expansion Draft. After being selected first overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Danladi had some success with Minnesota United, but was largely hampered by recurring injuries.
Danladi’s best season in Minnesota was his first, scoring eight and assisting two in 1,388 minutes. He’s capable of playing anywhere across the front line, and has elite-level speed, but the injuries are a major concern, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his minutes managed at the start of the 2020 season.
He showed well in limited minutes in 2019, with impressive numbers across the board. If Nashville can get that level of production from him in a larger role this season, he’ll look like a really high-value acquisition in the draft.
Ideally you’d be at the top right corner of this graph (that’s Zlatan Ibrahimović on the far right), and neither Badji or Danladi are. Danladi is above average in assists/96, and Badji’s 2019 numbers are skewed by the fact that he was often played out of position. Nashville’s technical staff consistently preach valuing the undervalued, and both players were certainly acquired at a dip in value.
Daniel Ríos was purchased from Mexican powerhouse Chivas Guadalajara as a low risk, high reward option. Ríos spent the last two seasons in USL Championship, and is the first player in league history to score 20 goals in consecutive seasons. During that time, Ríos vastly outperformed his expected goals, racking up a 10.2 non-penalty G-xG in those two years.
There’s a debate in the analytics community over whether or not finishing as a skill exists, and even if it does, if it’s consistently relevant (here’s an excellent article by Sean Steffen arguing that it’s not). I’m not going to go into depth here, but I believe there’s a case to be made that outperforming xG may indicate some measure of superior finishing instead of strictly luck.
Regardless, Ríos’s G-xG numbers came down to earth a bit in 2019 without losing any actual production. In 2018 with North Carolina, he had an 8.17 non-penalty G-xG. In 2019, that number dropped to 2.03 while scoring just one less goal from open play.
Brian White and Christian Ramirez are two of the biggest success stories of strikers translating well from USL/NASL to MLS. Statistically, #NashvilleSC‘s Daniel Ríos was better than either in the second division. He looks like a player who could translate really well to MLS. pic.twitter.com/OizBCwUtPC— Ben Wright (@benwright) November 26, 2019
Houston’s Christian Ramirez and NYRB’s Brian White are two of the most prominent examples of forwards finding success in MLS after spells in lower divisions, and Daniel Ríos scored at a better rate than either. That’s not a guarantee of future success, but the upside is there. The club may not place a weight of expectations on his shoulders, but they’re privately hoping he can surprise a lot of people in MLS. In just 35 minutes of MLS play this season, he had a better xG total (0.19) than Badji managed in 152 (0.18). Obviously, sample size is really, REALLY small, but I’m pretty optimistic that Ríos has the ability to not just survive but succeed in MLS.
Ríos was set to start Nashville’s match against Toronto, but then Covid-19 forced a five month break. NSC’s technical staff had hoped to see Ríos play 15+ matches by the time the summer transfer window rolled around, and despite legitimate interest in DP forward signings like Maxi Romero and Djordje Despotović, they want to see if Ríos can earn the job, and potentially even make a DP striker unnecessary.
Cameron Lancaster is the last forward on the roster, and he’s not currently on the roster; Lancaster was loaned to USL’s Louisville City before the season, with a recall clause in case Nashville run into injuries. Despite only playing 730 minutes in 2019, he still finished fourth on the team with 5 goals. In his five seasons playing in the USL Championship, he’s averaged 0.81 goals/96, an elite level of production. The highlight of his time in Louisville came in 2018, when he scored a USL record 26 goals (1.14 G/96) and lead Louisville City to a second-consecutive USL Cup.
The question with Lancaster has never been one of talent; rather, it’s been one of durability.
I really believe he has the talent to succeed at the MLS level, but with limited roster spots available, the injury issues appear to be a red flag for the club. On the flip side, he’s in really good form for Lou City (two goals in four games since the restart), and if Nashville struggle to score after the restart, that recall clause will start to look attractive.
Nashville pursued striker Aké Loba earlier in the January window, ultimately losing out to Liga MX giant Monterrey. They pursued striker Djordje Despotović, who opted to stay in Europe with Rubin Kazan. They’re still interested in Maxi Romero, but a new manager at PSV complicates the situation. The MLS transfer window opens back up on August 12, and I fully expect Nashville to be active in the market, but a DP striker may have to wait until January. If they do sign a higher-profile forward in August, it very well could be a loan move with an option to buy. If so, Ríos will still get chances to prove he’s the answer at the position and that Nashville don’t need to spend extra.
To me, the forward position is the biggest question mark going into the restart. If one of the current group can claim the starting job and score double digit goals, or if Nashville goes out and brings in a double digit scorer, this team could be really good. If not, they’ll struggle. Of course, missing out on the tournament and being a full month behind the rest of the league in both match fitness and sharpness may be too big of a mountain to climb. But on paper, this squad looks one or two pieces away from being a more competitive expansion side than you typically see in Major League Soccer.