The roster implications of Zimmerman and Mukhtar’s new contracts

Nashville SC announced today that Walker Zimmerman and Hany Mukhtar signed new contracts with the club that will keep them in Nashville through the 2025 season. 

Hany Mukhtar, a 2021 MLS MVP award finalist, cements his status as Nashville’s attacking centerpiece with a new contract. After a slow start in his first year in the Music City, Mukhtar found his footing in 2021 by scoring 16 goals and generating 12 assists. Mukhtar entered this season as only the 32nd-highest-paid player in the league. His performance in 2021 certainly earned the German a significant pay increase.

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Zimmerman, the back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year award winner, earned a significant salary increase. He likely now becomes the highest-paid defender in the league. The reported figure of $2.5 million dollars per season, would be the largest salary for an MLS defender since Rafa Marquez in 2012. As arguably the best pure defender in the entire region, Zimmerman certainly deserves the pay increase and added prestige of occupying a Designated Player slot.

In particular, by filling its third and final Designated Player slot with Zimmerman, the move has a few interesting implications for Nashville SC as the club maneuvers around the MLS roster rules and salary cap.

Nashville cannot sign another Designated Player

Okay. This one was pretty obvious. Each club can fill a maximum of three Designated Player (“DP”) slots. In making Zimmerman Nashville’s third DP alongside Hany Mukhtar and Aké Loba, there are no more slots available. 

Nashville cannot easily reopen any of the three DP slots. All three of Nashville’s DPs carry a budget charge in excess of the Maximum Targeted Allocation Money (“Maximum TAM”) threshold ($1,612,500) and cannot be bought down with allocation money.

Both Mukhtar and Loba’s guaranteed salaries of $1,505,000 and $1,318,475, respectively, fall below the Maximum TAM threshold. But their budget charges also include the amount Nashville paid in transfer fees to acquire them, amortized over the life of their contracts. The acquisition costs push Mukhtar and Loba’s budget charges well above the Maximum TAM threshold. Therefore, Nashville is unable to open either DP slot by buying down their budget charge with allocation money.  

At this juncture, it would be a shocker if any of Nashville’s three DPs departed in the upcoming summer transfer window. While Loba’s first year in Nashville has failed to live up to expectations, the front office will be patient in hoping that their club-record signing comes good. 

With no DP slots available this summer, there will not be any splashy summer signings for the Coyotes. Although by making Zimmerman a DP, Nashville created extra assets to continue its long-rumored chase of another U.S. Men’s National Team defender.

Nashville free up allocation money

By spending more money, Nashville saved money. It sounds like an oxymoron, but the salary cap math works out. 

At Zimmerman’s current salary of $981,050 per year, Nashville must spend at least $368,550 in allocation money each season to buy down Zimmerman’s budget charge below the maximum budget charge of $612,500. 

Now, as a Designated Player, Zimmerman’s budget charge is automatically reduced to the maximum budget charge – no GAM, TAM, or any other MLS funny money needed.  

With the allocation money savings, Nashville frees up assets that can be used this summer to add another piece to the roster. 

Shaq Moore is a prime example of the type of player Nashville could pursue this summer with the extra assets created by making Zimmerman a DP. Moore was heavily linked with the ‘Yotes this winter. 

At that time, I wrote about how Nashville could squeeze Shaq Moore into its roster budget using the stockpile of allocation money that the club amassed by trading away international slots and Alistair Johnston

Shaq Moore’s salary would likely come in around the amount of the Maximum Budget Charge. But any transfer fee paid to C.D. Tenerife to acquire Moore would be added into Moore’s budget charge. That added costs will need to be bought down with allocation money.

By freeing up roughly $368,000 in allocation money by making Zimmerman the club’s third DP, Nashville builds its war chest of assets to fit another high-quality starter into the roster.

Nashville limit themselves to just one U22 Initiative slot

In filling the third DP slot with a senior-aged player in Zimmerman, Nashville will only be permitted to carry one U22 Initiative player.

The U22 Initiative is still a relatively new roster mechanism in MLS. The rule allows teams to acquire certain young players, under the age of 22, at a significantly reduced salary cap hit. It is designed to incentivize teams to purchase young, talented players and eventually flip them for a profit. 

If a club has an unfilled DP slot or uses its third DP slot on a Young Designated Player (23 years old or younger), then that club can carry three U22 Initiative players. However, that number is reduced to just one U22 Initiative slot if all three DP slots are filled with players aged 24 years or older. All three of Nashville’s DPs are senior-aged, being 24 years or older. Therefore, Nashville can carry only one U22 Initiative player.

How much that matters is up for debate.

Two years in, the U22 Initiative has delivered mixed results. There have been a few successes and several flops. One of the biggest flops was Nashville’s acquisition of Rodrigo Piñeiro. The Uruguayan made just two appearances in a gold kit before being loaned out this winter to Chilean club Unión Española. 

Since Piñeiro has been loaned outside the league, Nashville still hold one available U22 Initiative slot that could be used to add a bit of youth to Nashville’s veteran-laden roster. 

With Zimmerman now occupying the third DP slot, Mike Jacobs will only be able to add one U22 Initiative player rather than three. But such a large influx of risky, young players was unlikely to occur all within the next one or two transfer windows anyway.

Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman earned well-deserved raises and contract extensions, which should keep them in Music City after their profiles have increased. The move closed some doors for Nashville in adding to its roster. But where one door closes another door opens.   

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His writings focus on the team at large and often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Twitter

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