After the most disappointing stint in Nashville SC transfer history, not to mention MLS history, Aké Loba is finally off the books. The Designated Player joined Mazatlán FC on loan, giving Nashville a chance to eventually recoup some of his club-record $6.8 million transfer fee.
Crucially, though, Loba will continue to occupy a DP spot on Nashville’s roster throughout the loan, unless Mazatlán trigger his purchase option or Nashville negotiate a transfer fee with another club. For a team whose secondary scoring issues held them back significantly last year, this… isn’t ideal.
I want to get two things out of the way off the bat, one positive and one less so.
First, Nashville have the best attacking player in MLS on their roster. Over the past two seasons he’s proved to be essentially matchup proof, and has scored a league-leading 42 goals in the last two years. He’s done this despite minimal help from fellow strikers.
Second, while we’re going to look at how Nashville could still sign a high-end attacker this window, that doesn’t mean they will. In an interview with MLSSoccer.com‘s Tom Bogert, Nashville General Manager Mike Jacobs said the following:
“The group, as constructed, we believe is built to be very competitive,” Jacobs said. “Our current DP situation and roster gives us flexibility to make further additions in the summer.”Nashville SC GM Mike Jacobs to MLSSoccer.com, January 6 2023
Nashville have waited until the summer to sign their last two DP strikers, and Jacobs has talked about the better options in the summer’s more active international window. That leads us to our first option.
1. Roll with what they have
Aside from Mukhtar, Nashville have CJ Sapong and Teal Bunbury on the roster as established strikers, although neither convinced in 2022. Sapong, who famously has never scored double-digit goals in consecutive seasons, scored just five times last season after 12 goals in 2021.
Bunbury was limited by injury in his first season as a ‘Yote, managing a solid, if unspectacular, five goals in 17 appearances. Bunbury will turn 33 days after Nashville open their season. Sapong just turned 34.
Ethan Zubak is an interesting and affordable depth piece, but didn’t score a league goal in 11 appearances last year. While he’s capable of offering a spark off the bench, the 24-year-od hasn’t looked ready to come in and provide the double-digit scoring threat Nashville desperately need.
Given their history and the messaging coming out of the front office, it seems most likely Nashville stick with their current attacking roster, at least until the summer window opens on July 1.
2. Trade for a striker within MLS
Nashville consistently pull in General Allocation Money (“GAM”), the primary means of player acquisition from within Major League Soccer. Just by trading international roster slots, they’ve amassed an impressive $1,250,000 in GAM, as well as an additional $525,000 from trading Dave Romney to New England.
While a lot of this stockpile of GAM is used to buy down players who are over the maximum budget charge but don’t meet the DP threshold, they still have flexibility to bring in a high-end striker from within MLS. It’s not unprecedented.
Heber, scorer of 42 goals in 70 MLS matches, was just traded from NYCFC to Seattle for $400,000. Brian White scored 21 goals in 31 games last season and was traded from New York Red Bulls to Vancouver Whitecaps, also for $400,000. The top-tier goal scorers, players like Jeremy Ebobisse or Chicho Arango, will cost well over a million in GAM, but there are value players to be found at a lower price point who would significantly elevate Nashville’s roster.
3. Sign a U22 Initiative striker
The U22 Initiative allows MLS clubs to purchase a young player at a significantly reduced budget impact ($150,000 or $200,000, depending on age).
To be eligible, the only requirements are that the player: (1) not turn 23 years old in their first MLS season, and (2) earn a salary of less than the Maximum Budget Charge ($651,250 in 2023). The transfer fee paid does not matter. Theoretically, a club could pay a $100 million fee and the player would still be eligible for the U22 Initiative slot, provided they satisfy the two criteria above.
With virtually no impact on the roster budget, U22 Initiative signings are a measure of ownership ambition. Leaving a U22 slot open and unused is no different than allowing a DP slot to remain unfilled. The most ambitious clubs would never dare keep such a valuable resource open any longer than necessary.
Dejan Joveljic (LA Galaxy), Leonardo Campana (Inter Miami), José Cifuentes (LAFC), and Santiago Moreno (Portland) were all acquired via the U22 Initiative. How much better would supporters feel if one of those difference-makers were inserted into Nashville’s starting lineup? My guess is quite a bit.
4. Sign a striker in the TAM range
Elite strikers aren’t always DPs. Taty Castellanos was the best striker in MLS during his time in the league, and was signed on a TAM deal. He’s by far the most extreme example, but he’s not a complete anomaly. Chicho Arango and Romell Quioto are double-digit goal scorers who were signed in the TAM range.
In a league where DP signings don’t always hit (as frustrating as Nashville’s last two attempts have been, they’re not the only ones to swing and miss big), clubs can find season-defining value for much lower. It obviously takes the right club and player situation, as high transfer fees factor into a budget charge and impact their DP status. And while this would be less likely to happen in the winter than in the summer, it’s a realistic and more affordable option for acquiring a desperately-needed striker.
5. Sign a DP striker on a non-DP deal
This has become more common in MLS in recent years, Gareth Bale being the most noteable example. LAFC signed Bale on a TAM deal in the summer window, with his contract set to turn into a DP deal in the following season. With Aké Loba occupying their third and final DP spot, potentially through 2023, this would be an ideal type of signing for Nashville.
As mentioned earlier, transfer fees complicate this significantly, as they’re averaged across the length of the contract and added to the players salary to create their budget charge. This would need to be a free transfer, either a free agent or with a club who agrees to let a player out of their contract.
Again, it takes a very specific scenario, but Nashville could theoretically bring in an elite but aging striker on a free transfer, giving them a lower initial salary and promising a sizeable bump in pay in their second year.
It’s the type of move Nashville have avoided so far. But still, it could give Nashville flexibility in the summer window to sign an elite striker, even if Loba doesn’t do enough to trigger the purchase option.
The best-case scenario would have been Loba playing like a $6.8 million striker. The second would have been finding a club who would pay his transfer fee outright. Neither of those happened, and it significantly limits what Nashville are able to do.
It will take creativity, hard negotiating and a good bit of luck, but they’re not quite as hamstrung as it might appear at first glance.