The Post Card: postseason quick hits

Nashville SC are in full offseason mode after their 1-0 loss to LA Galaxy in Round One of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

They have yet to announce their end-of-year roster decisions (they waited 48 days after their playoff loss last year, so don’t hold your breath), but that doesn’t mean we can’t start to analyze the roster and how they’ll approach the offseason.

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I teamed up with Chris Ivey, our resident roster rules guru, to answer your questions.

CHRIS: Yes, it is possible and probable that Nashville moves on from Aké Loba this offseason. That he never came into the match against the LA Galaxy, while Nashville trailed by a goal, spoke volumes. 

Based on our understanding of MLS rules through consultation with those more knowledgeable on the subject, Nashville cannot buy down Loba’s budget charge to move him off a Designated Player (DP) status. The requirement that a player occupies a DP slot is measured by amortizing the transfer fee plus salary across all of the guaranteed years of the player’s contract. Given the reported $7 million-dollar transfer fee Nashville paid to Monterrey, Loba must remain a DP for 2023. 

However, Mike Jacobs has other options. Loba could be loaned or transferred out of MLS for a cut-rate deal, although other clubs will know that Nashville weilds little leverage as it must find any means possible to reopen Loba’s DP slot. A potential scenario is that Nashville exercises its one-time buyout of Loba’s contract. The move would cost John Ingram $1.5 million dollars this winter and eliminate any hope of recouping a portion of the transfer fee paid to acquire him. Regardless of how, Nashville must move on from Loba if it is to find a high quality striker capable of raising Nashville’s ceiling and keeping open the title window. 

BEN: Let’s just get this out of the way. Loba was disappointing in 2021 and somehow managed to be even worse in 2022. There’s clearly no trust from Gary Smith or his staff. That’s not hyperbole; down the stretch Luke Haakenson was preferred ahead of him. Loba was supposed to be the guy, and Nashville cannot afford another season of just zero production from someone on a high TAM contract, much less a DP deal.

I think a buyout is a last resort. Even with Miguel Nazarit, Nashville opted to loan him out for a full year before burning GAM (which they love more than just about anything) to buy him out in the last year of his salary, and he on about half of Loba’s salary. I think Nashville shop Loba around this winter on loan, with the goal that he’ll find some level of form and raise his value a bit before they sell him.

If they can’t find a taker, only then do they use the buyout. You can essentially buy a DP spot for $1,491,475. At least that’s what would make sense to me.

BEN: I think this season, barring Hany Mukhtar’s outstanding performance, was a disappointment. I talked about it more in-depth here, but they had plenty of chances to do more in the regular season. They didn’t, and it cost them in the postseason. 

If they want to come close to maximizing on their potential while Walker Zimmerman and Hany Mukhtar are in Nashville, they need to make some serious improvements in the winter window. 

As far as Willis, he’s 34. Not young for a goalkeeper, but not too old, either. He really improved down the stretch and would be perfectly fine as a starter for another couple years. I also think Elliot Panicco will go into preseason with a real shot at winning the starting job. Goalkeeper is the least of my concerns about this team.

CHRIS: My hot take is that Nashville supporters need to start mentally preparing for the bottom to fall out. 

Now, I don’t think everything is doom and gloom as things stand today. The title contention window remains wide open the next couple of years, if the right moves are made. The underlying numbers suggest that Nashville was unlucky to not finish higher up the Western Conference standings. If Mike Jacobs finds a 15-goal striker, another ball-progressing midfielder, and depth attacking pieces, the Coyotes will again be a trendy “dark horse” silverware contender. 

However, the end is nigh. Nashville fields the oldest roster in MLS with several core components already north of 30 years old. While not yet into their thirties, there is the potential threat of losing Walker Zimmerman and Hany Mukhtar to Europe this offseason. Jack Maher could step in and replace some of Zimmerman’s, but the drop off is measurable. If Mukhtar were to depart, I am not sure who puts the ball into the back of the net. A fourth consecutive playoff berth would appear in jeopardy. 

Even if both stay, father time will eventually catch up to Nashville. We saw signs of time’s impending victory in 2022. C.J. Sapong has always been a streaky scorer, but it fair to wonder if we have seen the last double-digit season from him.

In the midfield, the Coyotes missed the contributions of Dax McCarty and Aníbal Godoy with their minutes decreased. As great as Sean Davis is defensively, he is below average in ball-progressing actions.

Nashville’s nascent academy is not ready to augment the roster and a large-scale roster turnover will eventually be required. The window remains open for now, but it sometimes shuts faster than you think. 

On Joe Willis’ age specifically, he fits the larger trend of the roster. There is no need to hang up the boots just yet, but he is entering the final stages of his career. He was the fifth-oldest regular starting goalkeeper in MLS this year.

Brad Guzan, 38, was the oldest goalkeeper this season. He will return to Atlanta in 2023. It is fairly routine to see quality goalkeepers play into their late thirties. As long as Willis’ body and play holds up, there is no reason to think he will not play for at least a few more seasons.

BEN: Really, really high. 

Miguel Almirón is still the record transfer in league history, going from Atlanta United to Premier League side Newcastle for $26 million. He was 24, three years younger than Mukhtar, and was coming off 22 goals and 30 assists in the past two seasons. Mukhtar is older, but produced at a significantly higher rate.

I imagine Nashville would hold out for at least $20 million, if offers came in. Mukhtar has 39 goals and 23 assists in his last two years. He’s had one of the best two-year stretches in MLS history. Nashville can’t replace that value easily. Probably not at all. 

The only way Mukhtar leaves is if he forces his way out, and it would take a lot for the situation to devolve into that territory. No matter which angle I look at it from, there’s just absolutely zero incentive for Nashville to sell.

Like it or not, Zimmerman is much more replaceable for Nashville. He’d be less expensive, too, but he’ll be a starter at the World Cup, the biggest showcase in world football. I don’t know if he leaves on a permanent deal, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see him go to England or Germany on a six-month loan in January, similar to what Jordan Morris did in 2021.

CHRIS: Hany Mukhtar is irreplaceable. 

Take a look around the league and the money spent on players that fall short of Mukhtar’s production in Nashville. Toronto is spending $14 million dollars in salary for Lorenzo Insigne and he still cannot drag them to the playoffs. There is no amount of money that Nashville could spend to find a guaranteed like-for-like replacement for the league MVP. It will take a heaping dose of luck for Mike Jacobs to ever fully replace Mukhtar’s production. 

Let’s go through a thought experiment. Say Nashville sells Mukhtar to a Bundesliga side for $15 million dollars. Nashville would likely need to turn around and spend that entire allotment, through a combination of transfer fee and salary, to find a potential replacement.

Mukhtar’s primary MVP competition, Sebastián Driussi, required a similar financial outlay. Austin paid a $7 million-dolllar transfer fee. Combine that with his $2.3 million-dollar salary, on what is likely a three-to-four year contract, and it adds up to a total financial spend in the $13.9m – $16.2m range.

What’s in it for Nashville to sell Mukhtar? There is no financial gain. As Ben pointed out, Nashville only considers selling if Mukhtar makes it messy if he is not granted a move back to Europe. 

Zimmerman is a bit of a different story. Maher has been groomed as the heir apparent. Nashville can afford to let Zimmerman go if the right price came in. Luckily for Mike Jacobs, I do not know if Zimmerman bites unless the bait includes Champions or Europa League football. If any of those types of clubs come knocking for Zimmerman, after a presumably impressive World Cup, they will have the financial might to make a transfer offer that feels light for them but mighty in the context of MLS. 

BEN: Nashville could lose up to one player in the Expansion Draft, but they get to protect 12. St. Louis can only pick five players from 28 teams, so the odds are with Nashville to begin with, but they certainly won’t lose anyone at the top end of their roster.

CHRIS: I will go more into the Expansion Draft in a second. Nashville could lose Eric Miller to free agency as he is out of contract and is eligible for MLS’s expanded free agency. If you want the full calendar of offseason events which includes the Re-Entry Draft, Expansion Draft, Super Draft, and more, check out the offseason calendar

As for the Expansion Draft, I think it more likely than the odds would otherwise suggest that St. Louis City selects a Nashville player. Depending on how Mike Jacobs structures his protected list, the crop of unprotected players could include C.J. Sapong, Elliot Panicco, Brian Anunga, Luke Haakenson, and Ahmed Longmire. Any of those could be an attractive option for an expansion club.

BEN: Yeah, season 2 just started production in October. It won’t be released until spring 2024 at the earliest.

As far as striker profile, I think it’s pretty clear what they’re after from their recent signings of Jhonder Cádiz and Aké Loba. I think they continue the trend of younger players from either Europe or South America who have scored goals at a consistent, if unspectacular, rate and can take a step forward in MLS.

The problem is that both Cádiz and Loba either stagnated or regressed in MLS. Whoever they sign this winter can’t do that. Whether they’ll take another shot at a $7 million player remains to be seen.

As far as the academy, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Nashville’s first homegrown signing this year. I doubt it will be a forward, and I’d be even more surprised if they get first-team minutes. A contract and stint with the MLS Next Pro team in Huntsville seems most likely.

CHRIS: I haven’t watched it yet, but The Rings of Power is on my list. Now that the MLS season is coming to the close, I will have plenty of time to catch up. 

I think the striker profile could change this offseason. For starters, the club could make a run at Luis Suarez. Let’s be clear, I have zero sources, but I can read the tea leaves. Reports out of Uruguay continue to suggest that Suarez will head to MLS after the World Cup.

He’s been continuously linked with the LA Galaxy, but that move makes little sense with Chicharito locked in for 2023. There are obvious connections between Ian Ayre and Suarez and the need for a clinical striker is evident. I say this all, yet I think the smart money is on him landing in South Florida to replace Gonzalo Higuaín. 

Beyond an aging superstar, I would look toward the mid-level European leagues for someone ready to take the next step. Gary Smith clearly values strikers that can provide a physical presence and aid the overall team through hold-up play. If that is the profile the manager seeks, Adam Buksa, the former New England Revolution forward, provides a good road map of where to find such a player.

The Revs acquired Buksa, then 23, from Pogoń Szczecin in the Poland Ekstraklasa. Safe to say that not many in the U.S. were familiar with the big Polish striker prior to his arrival. Nashville supporters could encounter the same feeling of having no prior knowledge of the player that Mike Jacobs eventually signs.

BEN: Yes.
CHRIS: He is tall and scores goals. Sign him up!

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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