Summer Plans: Five moves Nashville SC should make this summer

This is the second article in the two-part series on Nashville SC’s potential transfer plans. Yesterday, I wrote about the state of Nashville’s roster and budget management. The cliff notes version of yesterday’s piece is that Nashville has three open spots on the roster, around $2.1 million in available allocation money, and a front office commitment to invest in line with the “upper quadrant” of MLS clubs. With the assets available, Nashville is well positioned heading into the summer to make moves to strengthen the roster for both this season and the future.

Today, I’ll detail five moves that Nashville should make this summer to add talent, create roster flexibility, and maintain a significant reserve of allocation money.

1. Buy down Randall Leal’s salary to open a Designated Player and two U22 Initiative player spots

To create the roster flexibility needed to add significant talent to Nashville’s roster, the club must buy down Randall Leal’s budget charge. Nashville currently lists Leal as a senior Designated Player along with Hany Muhktar and Jhonder Cádiz.  With all three DP slots filled by senior DPs, Nashville is prohibited from adding another DP or another U22 Initiative player – unless it wants to skirt the rules like Inter Miami.

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By buying down Leal’s budget charge with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), Nashville would open a DP slot. The move also allows Nashville to sign two additional U22 Initiative players. Currently, Nashville is only permitted one U22 Initiative player, currently occupied by Rodrigo Piñeiro, as all three of the club’s DPs are senior aged. 

As a refresher, the U22 Initiative / “Young Money” rule is new to MLS in 2021. The rule permits clubs to purchase talented youngsters who will carry a budget charge of only $150,000 or $200,000 regardless of the transfer fee paid. Under the new U22 Initiative, a club can sign up three U22 Initiative players if the last DP slot is either unfilled or occupied by a Young Designated Player. If all three DP slots are filled by senior-aged DPs, then only one U22 Initiative player is permitted. This rule highly incentives Nashville to remove Leal as a DP and buy down his budget impact using TAM to open the extra two extra U22 Initiative players.   

My best guess is that buying Leal down would require Nashville to utilize around $400,000 in TAM. It is not clear exactly how much would be required as the transfer fee paid for Leal has never been publicized. Regardless of the amount, the TAM is well spent given the roster flexibility that the move creates with three highly valued players that could be added as a result. While I don’t think Mike Jacobs fills all three spots this summer, I do think we will see at least one talented youngster added to the group. 

2. Purchase Dax McCarty’s heir apparent under either the Young Designated Player rule or U22-Initiative

It is no secret; Nashville’s captain Dax McCarty (34) is not getting any younger. McCarty is an MLS legend, and he will forever be a Nashville SC legend as the club’s first captain. But at his age, the end could come at any moment via injury or retirement. 

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As of now, the club is ill-prepared for this eventuality. Midfielders Brian Anunga and Matt LaGrassa both provide quality depth and put in solid shifts when their number is called upon. But neither have yet shown the top-end talent necessary to be a first-choice starter in this league. Lurking on Nashville’s bench is college draftee Irakoze Donasiayano. The rookie midfielder from the University of Virginia draws comparisons to LAFC’s Latif Blessing. But Donasiayano has yet to make his professional debut. 

With a lack of proven options already in the fold, Nashville should look abroad to find McCarty’s long-term replacement. Bringing in the heir apparent now, as opposed to when McCarty official hangs up his boots, is important because it gives the player time to acclimate to MLS and immediately improves Nashville’s depth going into the fall when Aníbal Godoy’s hectic Panamanian national team schedule will necessitate squad rotation.

In my humble armchair GM opinion, Nashville must look for the club’s long-term holding midfielder using either the U22 Initiative or Young Designated Player rule. Both roster mechanisms set a player’s budget charge at either $150,000 or $200,000, depending on the player’s age, regardless of the transfer fee paid. This makes it the perfect move for Nashville. You obtain a young depth piece and future starter who does not significantly affect the salary cap while McCarty plays out his final days. 

I am not going to pretend to possess any insider knowledge of who Mike Jacobs and Nashville’s scouts might target for such a move. In a worldwide soccer transfer market, the options are limitless. But if Nashville sticks to recent MLS trends and its own transfer history, I expect to see a young player targeted from Central or South America. 

Before a transfer is completed, Nashville will need to acquire another International Roster spot. The club has filled all three of its current International spots on Leal, Piñeiro, and Jhonder Cádiz. Given ordinary timelines and barring hang-ups, Leal should expect his green card soon which would free up an International spot. Nashville’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office estimates a 10-19 month wait period. Leal arrived in the United States from Costa Rica 17 months ago. If Leal has not received his green card and still occupies an International Roster spot, Nashville would need to spend the going rate of $150,000 – $200,000 General Allocation Money (GAM) to acquire an additional spot for the rest of the season. 

3. Decline Jhonder Cádiz’s purchase option and sign a new DP striker

I chaired the board of the Jhonder Cádiz fan club this offseason. I was thoroughly convinced that a proper offseason would do him wonders. In my mind, Cádiz just needed time to gain match fitness and gel with the rest of the attacking group. After seven matches to start the year, we have yet to see him perform at a 2021 MLS DP striker level. 

Cádiz is by no means a bad player. He can be an effective MLS goal scorer and a late-game weapon. But MLS is a different animal. Your quality is intertwined with your salary impact and roster designation. Cádiz fails convince that he is worth a multi-million-dollar transfer fee and a locked-in spot as one of Nashville’s DPs for the next few seasons. Nashville needs to start turning draws into wins if it wants to make the playoffs and compete for trophies – that starts up top.

While not necessarily a concern for Mike Jacobs, CEO Ian Ayre and club owner John Ingram must consider the 30,000-seat stadium set to open next year. As the club makes the move to Wedgewood-Houston, the front office must find butts to fill seats. There is nothing that sells tickets more than a striker that can score goals for fun. Cádiz is not driving ticket sales, and I doubt he ever will. 

For all these reasons, my third move would be to decline Nashville’s purchase option with Benfica and replace him with a new DP striker. With Nashville declining Cádiz’s purchase option, all sights must be directed at immediately replacing him with another DP striker. The club will need someone capable of hitting the ground running with experience adapting to new clubs and new cultures. Ideally, they would come in fitting the system. Someone with strength in hold-up play, enough speed to create dangerous situations on the counter, and more clinical finishing than Nashville’s current options up top.

Over the last few weeks, transfer speculation has percolated regarding three strikers headed to MLS that fit the above criteria and piqued my interest. Those three are Radamel Falcao (Galatasaray), Aké Loba (Monterrey), and Nicolás Castillo (Club América).

Falcao, the Colombian superstar, has been linked to Nashville directly and would certainly put butts in seats. Loba is a player that Nashville heavily pursued a year ago and was at the top of their shortlist. At just 23 years old, he is just now hitting his prime years and could be a Josef Martinez type signing if it hits, and is looking for more minutes after finding himself mostly on the bench with Rayados. Castillo just seems like the type of hard-working striker that would interest Gary Smith and brings in name recognition among fans of Club América, the most popular soccer club in North America.

While Nashville could certainly look elsewhere, all three strikers are a class above Cádiz and would immediately improve Nashville’s attack. Ingram would need to pull out the pocketbook to add any of these players to the squad. But as I discussed in Part 1 yesterday, Ayre laid out a statement of intent to invest within the top quarter of MLS clubs. These are the type of strikers the top quarter of MLS clubs are targeting.

4. Swap Abu Danladi for an MLS veteran that can provide cover centrally for Hany Muhktar

Muhktar made a splash this week on Instagram when he announced that he intends to suit up for the Sudanese National Team in the near future.

With the fall soccer schedule crammed pack with FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and MLS action, Nashville will have to juggle the minutes it gives Leal and Anibal Godoy. You can now potentially add Muhktar to that list.

While Godoy and Leal are seasoned pros at handling a congested schedule, Muhktar is charting new territory personally and will have the added challenge of drastic time zone changes. Given Muhktar’s intentions, Nashville SC must find an MLS veteran that can help fill in at Muhktar’s spot in the midfield allowing draftee Irakoze Donasiayano time to develop into the role occupied by Derrick Jones last year.

To create the roster opening and reduce the allocation money spent on a trade, I would include Danladi in the deal. Nashville holds plenty of depth at striker and right wing and can afford to part ways with Danladi. The emergence of Luke Haakenson as a late game substitute takes away minutes that could otherwise be available for Danladi. Plus, Nashville will be keen to further integrate Rodrigo Piñeiro on the right wing.

5. Trade for an MLS Homegrown

The last move Nashville SC should make this summer is trading for a Homegrown-eligible player that can occupy the 30th and final roster spot. Until Nashville builds its academy to a level that churns out prospects for the senior team, the club must rely on intraleague trades to acquire Homegrown-eligible players. In its first two years as an MLS club, Nashville traded for the Homegrown rights of Derrick Jones, Alex Muyl, Handwalla Bwana, and Nick Hinds.

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MLS rules incentivize Homegrown players through various roster mechanisms. MLS clubs can register up to 30 players for the senior team. The last two players, roster slots 29 and 30, can only be occupied by Homegrowns that can earn up to $188,547. Nashville slots Bwana in as one of these two players. Muyl is ineligible for these last two slots as he earns over $200,000 per year. 

Similar to Nashville’s past trades for Homegrown-eligible players, a likely trade target is a player in his early twenties with a logjam at their position for their current club. Clubs with a fully developed academy and a strong senior team are the most likely trade partners. I would keep my eye on Seattle, Orlando City, and Philadelphia for a potential deal.

Where does this leave Nashville?

My five suggested moves for Nashville this summer adds immediate depth, provides two long-term prospects, fills the two of the three remaining roster positions, and opens a pathway to add an additional two players via the Young Designated Player rule and U22 Initiative. This is all accomplished without wrecking the budget and leaving a healthy stockpile of over $1 million in allocation money. 

Nashville does not have to stop here. Owner John Ingram and President Ian Ayre could make a definitive statement of intent as the team prepares to open a new stadium this time next year. The three moves outlined above merely set the table for Nashville to make bigger splashes in the future. I left open the possibility of two significant transfers for next year using the Young Designated Player rule and the U22 Initiative. But Nashville’s front office could always accelerate the growth plan and go big now.

If they see a chance to win a trophy, the allure of silverware may have them pushing all their chips in this summer. But having observed Mike Jacobs’ roster building over the past two years, I will place my money on him making sensible moves that leave open avenues heading into 2022 as the club makes its long-awaited move to Wedgewood-Houston.

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