Where Nashville SC stand entering the June international break

Nashville SC physically survived the early-season gauntlet and entered the June international break with a chance for some well-earned rest and relaxation. With the two-week break in MLS play, it is a fantastic opportunity to evaluate where things stand for the Coyotes in their third season in MLS. 

The team as a whole

Nashville currently sits in sixth place in the Western Conference. However, the standings, at this juncture, remain slightly skewed. Having spent the first eight matchdays on the road to allow for the completion of GEODIS Park, Nashville have the most home matches remaining in MLS (13). 

Based on a few different models, Nashville currently project to finish between third and fifth place in the Western Conference.

There is reason to think that Nashville could finish even higher. Prior to the season, my colleague Ben Wright and I sat down and predicted how many points Nashville would earn from each match. Ben had lofty expectations for the Coyotes predicting the club to finish with 62 points. But at this point in the season, Nashville has outperformed Ben’s preseason game-by-game predictions by two points. It suggests that an easier schedule may be ahead for Nashville and that a 60-point season is still a real possibility. 

The easier schedule comes immediately exiting the international break. Nashville will not play a team above the playoff line until mid-July. Plus, only two of Nashville’s remaining seven road matches feature foes currently in a playoff position. The rest of the season sets up well for the Coyotes to reel off a number of wins if they play up to their potential.

Beyond MLS play, Nashville advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. They’ll play away to Orlando City on June 29th. If Nashville can tame the Lions and advance to the semifinals, the club will be the closest it has ever come to silverware in its history. For a smaller-market expansion team, Nashville’s success continues to set the gold standard.

With a legitimate opportunity to play for trophies, let’s take a look at each position and where things stand as of the June international break.

The goalkeepers

After largely steady play in his first two seasons in Nashville, the start of the 2022 season has been one to forget for Joe Willis. He has failed to statistically impress and committed a series of blunders resulting in goals in three-straight matches. The errors, in combination with Nashville’s packed schedule, resulted in Gary Smith turning to a different goalkeeper for the first time in Nashville’s MLS era. 

According to American Soccer Analysis, Willis is having his worst year as a professional. His Goals Added (g+) tally is 21st of 29 goalkeepers with at least 500 minutes played.

While the most egregious blunders have come elsewhere, isolating Willis’ shot-stopping figures does not create a rosier picture. As measured by Post-Shot Expected Goals Minus Goals Allowed (PSxG – GA) Per 90 Minutes, Willis sits in the bottom 10% of MLS goalkeepers in 2022. It is the worst total in Willis’ career since StatsBomb started tracking this metric in 2018.

With Willis slumping, Nashville recalled Elliot Panicco from loan from Indy Eleven and immediately inserted him into the starting role. The coaching staff values Panicco, but it is still far too early to tell what Nashville may have in the big 6’5” goalkeeper. 

For anyone looking for an immediate upgrade, keep reading. I do not anticipate any summer moves on the goalkeeping front. The domestic market is extremely thin on trustworthy options, and I would not expect a foreign signing.

Mike Jacobs plans transfers months and months in advance. Until Willis’ recent string of calamitous errors, there was little reason to spend finite resources on a risky chance at an upgrade. Willis’ contract runs through the end of 2022 with a team option for 2023. If his poor play continues, Nashville could decline the extension and look elsewhere for a new goalkeeper in the winter market. Until then, it is up to Willis or Panicco to right the ship for the rest of the season.

Center backs

The center back trio remains a key focus on Nashville’s identity in 2022. As a whole, Nashville’s defense has yielded just 1.15 expected goals against per match (6th best). This is impressive given the heavy tilt of road matches to start the season. However, it is a slight increase from the previous two seasons (2020: 1.09 xGA ; 2021: 1.04 xGA). Zimmerman remains elite, but there has been a step back with his two defensive partners.   

After capturing back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year awards, Mike Jacobs awarded Walker Zimmerman with a Designated Player (DP) contract that reportedly will pay $2,500,000 per year. It will make Zimmerman the league’s highest-paid defender.  Zimmerman is putting together another Best XI season. He leads all qualifying center backs in Goals Added (g+) on a per 96-minute basis. Zimmerman will need to hold off the likes of Mamadou Fall (LAFC) and Alexander Callens (NYCFC), who are both amassing award-worthy seasons of their own, to capture an MLS-record third-straight Defender of the Year Award. 

Zimmerman’s typical backline partners, Dave Romney and Jack Maher, remain consistently present in Nashville’s starting XI. Romney continues to be one of the better veteran values in the league as the 61st highest-paid defender. Statistically, Maher has taken a step back this season. Maher ranks 6th worst among MLS center backs with 500 minutes played in Goals Added (g+). Maher has had a couple of defensive lapses this season, the Houston match most notably. But the statistical dip does not mirror the overall eye test. I expect Maher’s numbers to even out as the season progresses. 

That brings us to Eric Miller. He plays both a center back and wingback for Gary Smith. I am going to discuss Miller with the center backs to emphasize a broader point. Nashville needs another depth center back that Smith will trust. Miller’s versatility is a plus and can be relied upon to fill a role without shooting Nashville in the foot. But Nashville could use one more center back within its rotation to provide spot minutes, especially if the club hopes to continue to compete on multiple fronts with both MLS and U.S. Open Cup play. 

Jalil Anibaba filled the depth center back role the last two seasons, but he was never replaced. This offseason, Nashville picked up Josh Bauer and Ahmed Longmire, however, neither has made an appearance. Ideally, one of these two in-house candidates will take a step forward in training this summer and earn Gary Smith’s trust. But until that occurs, Nashville may consider making a small trade to pick up an MLS veteran center back on an expiring deal to bridge the gap until next season and provide competition for Jack Maher that will push him to the next level. Notable veterans that would fit the mold include, Larrys Mabiala (Portland), Daniel Steres (Houston), Chris Mavinga (Toronto), Florian Jungwirth (Vancouver), and Nick Besler (Real Salt Lake). 

Wingbacks

I’ll start quickly on the left side. Daniel Lovitz and Taylor Washington keep delivering as we would expect on Nashville’s left flank. Lovitz provides quality and dependability both defensively and offensively. Washington is more limited in his offensive skill set, but his blistering pace erases mistakes in the back. 

The far more interesting discussion concerns the right-sided wingback role. Vacated by Alistair Johnston after his winter trade to CF Montréal, it was an open question as to who would win the starting gig. After a third of the season in the books, Alex Muyl appears to have wrestled control of the in-house battle to replace Johnston. 

Muyl has added an interesting sprinkle offensively. He is among the top 10 MLS fullbacks/wingbacks in goals, shots, and xG. It creates flashy and memorable moments. After all, Muyl is a former attacking winger. We should expect some pop in the final third. But beyond the goal-scoring chances, the Alex Muyl wingback experiment becomes much murkier. 

American Soccer Analysis’s Goals Added (g+) metric, which attempts to measure a player’s total contribution, judges Muyl harshly as he sits just 65th of 73 fullbacks/wingbacks with 500 minutes played. This year, I’ve pulled no punches in my criticism of Muyl as a defender in Nashville’s defensive third. At times, he looks lost and has yet to develop a feel for the position. Frankly, that is to be expected. It’s a new role for him. It takes time.

I am still firmly in the camp that Nashville needs an upgrade at right wingback. The Shaq Moore whispers will continue and should only pick up once his season concludes with CD Tenerife. 

Moore would provide a significant upgrade to Nashville’s right flank, but also free up Alex Muyl to resume his role as Gary Smith’s Swiss Army knife off the bench. This would be especially beneficial as Muyl is the natural backup to Randall Leal and even has shown the ability to drop into a holding midfielder spot when Nashville is in a pinch. 

Holding midfielders

Nashville is blessed with arguably the best core of holding midfielders in the entire league. A position that was already a strength for the Coyotes became even stronger when the club signed Sean Davis away from New York Red Bulls.

Davis hit the ground running and has become a nearly undroppable force in the middle. You may not always notice him at live speed, but he constantly pops up in defensive spaces to extinguish fires and pick up possession for Nashville. He ranks in the top 10 of MLS midfielders in several key defensive stats. 

Even with the acquisition of Davis, Brian Anunga continues to make himself an integral part of Gary Smith’s midfield rotation. The Cameroonian’s playing time has undoubtedly benefited from the cramped schedule along with injuries to Aníbal Godoy and a multi-match suspension for Dax McCarty. But he’ll take it where he can get it.

Anunga is still largely the same player from last year. He is a high-level defender that retains possession well but adds virtually nothing from a progressive passing perspective. Anunga ranks second-to-last among MLS midfielders in Goals Added (g+) from Passing actions on a per 96-minute basis. The verticality of his average pass is slowly creeping up year after year, but it still remains mired in the bottom quartile. 

Nashville’s veteran leaders, McCarty and Godoy, have suffered from start-stop seasons thus far due to injury, suspension, and national team duty. Godoy’s previously elite passing metrics have taken a nose dive, but I would chalk that simply up to small sample size. A disproportionate chunk of Godoy’s minutes has come while Nashville was playing it safe and holding on to a favorable result. 

The summer transfer window should be a quiet one for Nashville’s holding midfielders. Mike Jacobs has no reason to add another body to the mix. However, it would not surprise me in the least if he fielded a few trade calls concerning Brian Anunga. Even if he does not provide a passing link, he would bring instant stability to teams with a struggling defensive spine. It would take a significant offer to pry him away after he signed a sizeable new contract in the offseason.

Attacking midfielders

I’m going to use this section solely to address the position normally occupied by Randall Leal in Nashville’s starting XI. In Leal’s injury absence, Luke Haakenson has taken on the lead role with a sprinkling of Handwalla Bwana in relief. 

Since the start of the calendar year, Leal has been dropped from the Costa Rican National Team. However, it’s not clear if that is entirely due to performance as the manager has shifted focus away from MLS-based players. Statistically speaking, Leal’s metrics are slightly down from a year ago. But like the rest of Nashville’s squad, this might be chalked up to a small sample size with a heavy tilt of road contests.

The eye test would tell you that Leal has been largely up to his normal contributions in the gold and blue as a vital passing link in-between the lines and a willing defender that drops into Nashville’s first bank of four. Leal has been out of the lineup with an ankle injury since early May, but appears to be ramping up his training and should be back on the teamsheet soon. 

Haakenson has been the biggest benefactor of Leal’s absence. The biggest surprise when diving into the numbers is Haakenson’s passing completion percentage. He has completed 7.03 passes over expected per 100 passes. Stated another way, American Soccer Analysis’ models would expect Haakenson to have completed just 74.9% of his passes, but he has a pass completion percentage of 81.0%. It’s the best mark of any outfield player in MLS this season with at least 200 minutes played.

Yet, for all the stellar passing numbers, Haakenson’s Goals Added (g+) tally is the third-lowest on the team. There is still a lot of noise in these numbers, but some things to keep an eye on as he continues to log match time. 

Bwana has also logged a few minutes with Nashville this season. He provided the assist on the crucial goal to snatch a victory in Louisville, but that goal was more about Hany Mukhtar’s run and finish than it was Bwana’s pass. I thought Bwana popped up in a lot of good spaces in Nashville’s first U.S. Open Cup match against Atlanta United, but the final touch and ball were lacking.

I still think Bwana could use some more match experience, a USL loan during the second half of the season would do him well.  

I am not sure Nashville makes a move here in the summer. If Nashville does acquire an upgraded right wingback, it will push Muyl back into the mix for minutes off the bench behind Leal. If any investment is made, it will not be to supplant Leal who just received a lucrative new contract this offseason.

Forwards

Like most clubs, Nashville’s forwards consume most of the online discussion and media attention. It should not be surprising. Hany Mukhtar is stringing together another MVP-caliber season and C.J. Sapong continues to keep the $7 million-dollar DP Aké Loba on the bench. 

There are not enough superlatives that I can bestow upon Mukhtar to capture how important he is to Nashville SC. The club surely understands this after announcing an agreement on a multi-year extension for Mukhtar. The negotiations can’t have been too difficult. Pay the man top dollar and start taking preliminary measurements for his statue outside GEODIS Park. As long as remains and Nashville and avoids injury, I have little doubt in my mind that Mukhtar will cement himself as a club legend.

C.J. Sapong overcame a slow start and is back to bagging goals. He has 5 goals and 3 assists in MLS action with another stoppage-time equalizer in the U.S. Open Cup. Sapong continues to earn Gary Smith’s trust as the number one striker keeping Loba on the bench. 

Discussion of Aké Loba has consumed more article word counts and podcast airtime than perhaps anyone on the roster. With the biggest transfer fee in club history came the biggest expectations. Loba has failed to live up to those expectations.

The most frustrating part is that we all see the momentary flashes of brilliance. His now patented midfield turns to spring a counterattack always draw rave reviews. But driving runs will not get a striker on the field without production in the final third. Loba still has just two goals for Nashville. It is not good enough, even when you factor in minutes played and game state. 

I’ve wanted Loba to succeed as much as anyone. I still think there is a great player in him. But at a certain point, if he isn’t going to supplant C.J. Sapong in Smith’s first-choice XI, you need to cut your losses and reopen an immeasurably valuable Designated Player spot. This is especially true if Smith does not even view Loba as a striker within his system; Loba is not replacing Mukhtar anytime soon. 

If I am Mike Jacobs, I’m shopping Loba this summer for 50 cents on the dollar. It may be a tough pill to swallow for John Ingram’s checkbook, but it is the type of ruthless move necessary to maintain roster flexibility. Designated Player (DP) slots are far too valuable to be wasted on a reserve player, especially when the presence of three senior DPs closes off an extra two U22 Initiative slots. 

Yesterday, we heard the first reports that may indicate that Nashville is looking for a player capable of stepping into Loba’s current role as the late-game substitute for Mukhtar. 

Regardless of whether Loba moves on, Nashville needs to find a target forward that fits Smith’s ideal mold. Early in the season, Teal Bunbury occupied the reserve target #9 role, making multiple substitute appearances and one start. Out injured for the last month, he should be set to return. But Bunbury failed to impress when on the field. Historically, Bunbury has played out on the wing rather than in a central forward role, and will hopefully be used in a more comfortable role going forward.

Ethan Zubak has also seen time this season up top. He had a brilliant outing against Atlanta United in the U.S. Open Cup, scoring the match winner. Zubak has a large frame but is still pretty slight in his body build. He appears better equipped to run in channels rather than serve as a long-ball outlet with hold-up play. His career aerial duel win percentage of 42.3% bears that out. 

With Rodrigo Piñeiro out on loan and no sign of returning to Nashville (the loan still hasn’t been announced by Nashville!!), the Coyotes hold an open U22 Initiative slot. This roster mechanism allows you to bring in a young player that has minimal impact on a team’s MLS salary cap regardless of the transfer fee paid. Nashville could use the U22 Initiative to bring in a developing target forward. Recently, MLS teams have tended to look to South America and lower-tiered European leagues for U22-eligible acquisitions. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Nashville eventually do the same.

The upcoming transfer window

MLS’ secondary transfer window doesn’t open until July 7th. But Nashville will not wait until then to start making summer moves. While a new signing cannot be registered until that July 7th date, deals can be announced at any time. Keep your eyes peeled the next month as another transfer season with undoubtedly bring plenty of rumors linking Nashville to new signings that will reshape the roster as the Coyotes chase trophies on multiple fronts. 

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