We’re kicking off our 2021 position profile series with one of the biggest question marks, as well as one of the deepest positions, on this Nashville SC roster. While striker was a major weakness in 2020, Nashville has options heading into the season. With a mix of MLS veterans and exciting younger players, head coach Gary Smith’s side should be able to get consistent finishing from the position.
We’ll break down the options on the roster in the order of our working depth chart from top to bottom.
25 years old – 10 appearances – 483 minutes
20 shots – 2 goals – 1.68 xG – -0.10 G+
Jhonder Cádiz arrived late in the season. On loan from Benfica, he didn’t land in Nashville until mid October, and made his first appearance with just seven regular season matches to go. He hadn’t played a competitive match in seven matches, after his stint in France with Dijon was cut short due to Covid. As a result, he clearly wasn’t operating at full fitness in 2020. Nonetheless, he was fairly effective in limited minutes, scoring twice and seeing two more ruled out for offside in Nashville’s playoff win over Toronto.
His loan is up at the end of June, but Nashville can trigger a purchase option at anytime, and unless he struggles in the extreme, it seems to be a bit of a formality that he’ll stay in Nashville long term. As the DP striker, he’ll have a bit of a long leash, and should get every chance to start.
While he’s not lightning fast, he’s quicker than he looks, and his pace keeps center-backs honest. While he’ll occasionally drop into midfield to get onto the ball, he tends to stay high and look to get in between the center-backs. This particularly opens up space for Hany Mukhtar underneath, who enjoyed his best form of the season when paired with Cádiz.
Cádiz is strong in the air and in holdup play, and can strike a ball really cleanly. Without a decent sample size in MLS, and with his sole minutes played at less than 100%, it’s hard to set expectations with perfect accuracy. But if he’s the week in, week out starter, hitting 15 goals should be a reasonable benchmark.
26 years old – 21 appearances – 889 minutes
32 shots – 5 goals – 5.45 xG – 0.24 G+
Nashville’s first MLS signing, Ríos impressed for two seasons in USL before making his MLS debut. He struggled with minor injuries throughout the 2020 campaign, and as a result, he was often limited to shortened appearances and didn’t quite get the run of games he probably deserved.
I get a lot of grief from the other members of Speedway Soccer for being so high on him, but his numbers are REALLY good. He scores goals whenever he sees the field, and throughout his career has finished slightly above his xG, and scores with every other shot he puts on target. His MLS sample size is fairly small, but his per 96 numbers were in the very upper echelon in the league.
With five goals in under 900 minutes, he adapted really well to MLS and is a very overqualified backup. With Cádiz firmly entrenched as the first-choice option, Ríos will get plenty of opportunities off the bench, as well as the occasional start. If he can get in the 1,500 minute range, he should be able to hit his stated target of double digit goals.
32 years old – 11 appearances – 534 minutes
8 shots – 2 goals – 2.10 xG – -0.07 G+
Sapong joins Nashville as a free agent after a decade in MLS. Primarily a striker, Sapong can also play on either wing, giving Gary Smith a good bit of flexibility in attack. Sapong had a couple minor injuries last season in Chicago, and wasn’t part of the squad for the final five matches of the season.
Throughout his MLS career, Sapong has been a consistent finisher, finishing right in line with his expected goals total over the last seven seasons. Since American Soccer Analysis began tracking stats in 2013, he’s been in the upper echelon of MLS strikers in terms of production.
He’s excellent from set pieces, bagging the first goal of Nashville’s preseason with a well-taken header. At 6-1, he’s a great target in the box, but he’s a lot more than just a big physical presence.
His movement is really intelligent, drifting around in the box to ghost past defenders into pockets of space. He’s also really quick, providing a more mobile option than either Cádiz or Ríos.
Sapong isn’t just a depth signing. He’ll compete for meaningful minutes this season, and should be able to bag a good return of goals.
28 years old – 12 appearances – 788 minutes
18 shots – 1 goals – 2.72 xG – -0.31 G+
Dom Badji was the first choice striker for much of 2020, and it’s fair to say he struggled. He underperformed his expected goals by nearly two, and never seemed on the same page with the rest of the attack. He got hurt in mid-September and didn’t feature again for the rest of season.
Nashville’s attack drastically improved without Badji, and it’s a bit of a correlation versus causation debate. Did Nashville get better because Badji wasn’t playing, or would their improvement have happened regardless? With a much more cohesive attack and more depth at his position, Badji will have his work cut out to get on the field. His versatility could help, but wing is a loaded position as well.
Badji isn’t the best finisher on the roster, nor is he the best at linking play. His greatest strength is his pace and workrate. He’s probably the best pressing forward in the squad, and gives Nashville a different edge out of possession. It sounds like he’s impressed in preseason so far. His role in 2021 seems like an open-ended question.
25 years old – 17 appearances – 629 minutes
17 shots – 2 goals – 2.18 xG – -0.38 G+
The first overall pick in the 2019 Expansion Draft, Danladi customarily struggled with injuries in 2020, but still managed to become a regular off the bench and in spot starting roles. His numbers are a bit skewed, as he split time between the wings and as a center forward.
With plenty of options ahead of him centrally, he’ll likely spend more time out wide in 2021. He’s one of the quickest players on the roster; a “vertical threat” as general manager Mike Jacobs would say. He’s a fantastic change of pace option off the bench, and seems ideal for late game scenarios when the game is more stretched.
While he’s not a young player anymore, he has never quite established himself after a fantastic rookie season. In Nashville, it seems like his primary role is as an option off the bench.
We’ll continue this series in the buildup to Nashville’s home opener, with a look at the midfield up next.