Where Nashville SC stands as the transfer window closes and long-term planning begins

The transfer window has officially shut for MLS. It was a quiet Deadline Day for the Coyotes as Mike Jacobs and company made no further trades or transfers in the final hours of the MLS Secondary Transfer Window.

Nashville can no longer make any trades or purchase a player from another club for the rest of the season. However, the roster is not necessarily set in stone. MLS teams can still sign a free agent from overseas or recall one of its players from loan, if needed in an emergency. But I wouldn’t expect much, if any, movement from now until the end of the season. 

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With the transfer window closed, let’s look back at the moves Nashville made, the moves they did not make, and the moves that could be coming down the pike this offseason.

Summer additions

Unless you have been living under a rock this past month, you will of course know all about Nashville’s acquisition of Shaq Moore. For a reported $2 million-dollar price tag, the Coyotes finally landed their long coveted target for the right-back position.

If you want to go back and read my thoughts on Moore and how he will fit into the squad, you can do so below. But I will save you from a regurgitation of the same info. 

A couple of weeks in and Moore has now featured three times for the Boys in Gold with his minutes increasing with each match. He has flashed the two-way skills that set him apart as a U.S. National Team player. As he continues to gel with the rest of his teammates, I only expect his contributions to grow.

Earlier this week, Nashville made its second acquisition of the summer by executing a trade for Toronto FC winger Jacob Shaffelburg and an International Slot for the remainder of the 2022 season. The loan plus slot cost Nashville $225,000 GAM. The current market for a half-season International Slot is running at around $200,000. Therefore, one can surmise that Nashville paid just $25,000 GAM as a “loan fee” for Shaffelburg.

The Shaffelburg deal also comes with a purchase option at the end of the season. But with no reported information indicating the amount of that option, it is hard to make a judgment call on the permanency of the move at this time. However, I would be shocked if it was a break-the-piggy-bank-level fee. Toronto has little use for Shaffelburg with a duo of DP Italians now occupying the wings.

If you want to read up more about Shaffelburg and some of the underlying analytics that suggest that he could blossom into a legitimate MLS starter, check out my Three Thoughts article from yesterday. There is an entire section dedicated to the move.

I am a big fan of the two moves Nashville made this summer. However, I am left wanting more as there are still plenty of holes left in this roster.

Unused senior roster and U22 Initiative slots

For me, the biggest story of Nashville’s summer transfer window is not what they did, but what they did not do. 

Nashville entered the transfer window with one of the thinnest and oldest rosters in the league. They temporarily addressed this with the trade for Jacob Shaffelburg. But even with Shaffelburg’s addition, Nashville was still in need of more attacking talent, whether that came via a new striker, ball-progressing midfielder, or both. Yet, the transfer window closes without Mike Jacobs and Gary Smith addressing either of these two positions. 

While Nashville sat back, other clubs did not. There were budget-friendly moves made by a multitude of MLS teams that could have made sense for Nashville as well. 

Nashville’s tepid summer is not for lack of space on the roster. Four Senior Roster and a pair of Reserve Roster slots remain vacant. Mike Jacobs also held open a valuable U22 Initiative slot. 

The U22 Initiative, colloquially known as “Young Money”, allows MLS teams to acquire talented youngsters with nearly all the salary cap risk removed. The impetus behind Young Money is to encourage MLS teams to invest in appreciating assets, develop them further within MLS, and sell them overseas for a profit. For MLS teams without a robust academy, the U22 Initiative can also be a talent acquisition method to replace aging veterans for the long-term future of the club. 

To qualify for the U22 Initiative, a player must (1) be twenty-two years old or younger in their first year in MLS; and (2) make less than the Maximum Salary Budget Charge, currently $612,500. 

If qualified, the transfer fee paid to acquire the player is not added to the budget charge and the player will hit the salary cap at just $150,000 or $200,000, depending on their age. With those significant cap advantages, U22 Initiative slots are precious resources only behind Designated Player slots in value to a club’s roster composition. 

Nashville’s first and only U22 Initiative signing was Rodrigo Piñeiro. The Uruguayan attacker came to the Music City prior to the 2021 season. He made just two appearances in blue and gold last year before a public falling out with the club. Piñeiro remains on Nashville’s books while on loan with the Chilean side Unión Española, although the loan has never been officially announced or even acknowledged by Nashville. With Unión, Piñeiro has had a successful season flashing the type of attacking talent that prompted Nashville’s original interest.

Based on a plain reading of MLS Roster Rules and Regulations, Piñeiro no longer occupies Nashville’s lone U22 Initiative slot.

With an open U22 Initiative slot, I expected Mike Jacobs to make a signing utilizing this roster resource this summer. However, that didn’t happen. It’s disappointing, to say the least. Nashville need an injection of talent and youth into the roster. Several members of Nashville’s core are on the wrong side of 30; Dax McCarty (35), Joe Willis (33), C.J. Sapong (33), Anibal Godoy (32), Teal Bunbury (32), and Daniel Lovitz (30). 

Instead, we will have to wait until at least this winter for Jacobs to make additional moves to fill the roster and make a long-term investment via the U22 Initiative.

The Coyote loan band

Nashville survived the summer without any transfers away from the club. It shouldn’t be too surprising as Gary Smith has been given a relatively thin roster that needed additions and not subtractions. 

While not permanent transfers, Mike Jacobs did secure loan moves for a pair of center backs this past month. Nashville sent Josh Bauer on loan to Sacramento Republic. Despite heading to the USL Championship, Bauer increased his odds of lifting a top-level trophy as Sacramento heads to Orlando City next month for the U.S. Open Cup final. Elsewhere, Robert Castellanos resumed his loan with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Castellanos began his season in South Florida before fracturing his ankle. He returned to Nashville for his rehabilitation and just this week headed back to Florida to hook up again with the Rowdies.

The Bauer and Castellanos loans send a strong signal that Nashville’s recent move to a back four is likely here to stay. As pointed out by my colleague Ben Wright, Gary Smith is left with just three natural center backs and Eric Miller, who really only deputizes as a center back as part of a back three. If any significant injuries occur, a loan recall may be in order.

In addition to Bauer and Castellanos, Nashville’s band of loanees also includes the aforementioned Rodrigo Piñeiro (Unión Española), Ahmed Longmire (Orange County SC), Irakoze Donasiyano (Phoenix Rising), and Bryan Meredith (Indy Eleven).

Even if some of these players do not figure into Nashville’s plans in 2022, they may help form the core of the new MLS NEXT Pro team beginning play next season. 

Stocking a roster for the Rocket City

Nashville recently announced that it is bringing professional soccer to Huntsville, Alabama. The Rocket City, just under a two-hour drive to the south, will serve as the home for the club’s MLS NEXT Pro team beginning in 2023. 

MLS NEXT Pro is the new reserve league for MLS clubs with currently one independent club, Rochester New York FC. Play began this year with 21 teams. Six other teams will join Huntsville as new additions in 2023. 

With Nashville SC fielding its first reserve team, Mike Jacobs will be busy this offseason filling out both the coaching staff and nearly the entire roster. I expect we might see our first professional minutes produced by Nashville’s nascent academy, but do not expect too much from the Gold Mine just yet. There is still a long way to go before this group will start regularly churning out homegrown signings. Instead, look for Nashville to target several free agent USL players to fill the bulk of the initial roster. 

Expansion Draft

This offseason will also renew the possibility of Nashville losing a player via the Expansion Draft as St. Louis City arrives in MLS in 2023. Before you groan about why are we discussing this now, I guarantee you that Mike Jacobs has penciled out an initial protected list. 

One of the added bonuses of the Jacob Shaffelburg loan with purchase option is that the Canadian arrives with his homegrown rights, which protects him from selection by St. Louis City. I am willing to bet an overpriced GEODIS Park beer that automatic Expansion Draft protection factored in Jacobs’ mind.

Before I give the 1.0 version of my protected list, let’s revisit the ground rules… assuming MLS HQ doesn’t change the rules on a whim as they are prone to do. 

St. Louis City may select five players in the Expansion Draft. Nashville can, at most, only lose one player. If St. Louis does select a Coyote, Nashville will receive $50,000 GAM in compensation. Homegrown signings and Generation Adidas signings receive automatic protection. After that, each team can choose up to 12 players to add to their protected list. Now that your recollection has been refreshed, on to my draft lists.

Before you express shock, let me explain some of my calculations here. 

First, I have a sneaking suspicion that this might be McCarty’s last season. His playing time is dwindling. But more importantly, I think Nashville’s captain could legitimately be a star personality as Apple TV builds out its lineup of programming for next season as it takes on MLS broadcasting rights. Setting up his post-playing career may make the time right to hang up the cleats. If McCarty does announce a retirement, there is no need to waste a slot protecting him. However, if Nashville’s captain does return at 36 years old for another season, McCarty likely receives protection over Brian Anunga. The Cameroonian would be an attractive candidate for an expansion team that figures to need a staunch defense if it is to avoid some of the pitfalls of expansion teams of the past. So whether it comes from losing McCarty or Anunga, Nashville needs to be thinking about how to acquire another midfielder and preferably on the younger side to balance out the roster.

Bunbury barely misses the cut, despite his recent run of form. If he keeps scoring and starting ahead of Sapong, their positions could flip flop. Eric Miller is out of contract at the end of the season. Even if Nashville plans on resigning Miller, it makes strategic sense to wait until after the Expansion Draft. St. Louis City, if they have learned anything from the past mistakes of others, will not draft an out-of-contract player who can simply sign elsewhere. 

I chose to protect Elliot Panicco over Joe Willis based on who might be more enticing to St. Louis. The club has already secured their Day 1 netminder having signed Roman Bürki, 31, from German giants Borussia Dortmund. With Bürki in place, are they really going to select the veteran Willis as an expensive backup? The answer is a resounding “No”. But the younger Pannico could be an enticing developmental and backup keeper for the young club. Thus, the reason why I protect Panicco over Willis.

Lastly, I am not protecting Aké Loba. This is an easy call for me as I would also be willing to buy out his contract this offseason in order to reopen the third Designated Player slot. However, this may be a tougher decision for club owner John Ingram who may not be ready to flush his $7 million-dollar investment down the drain. 

All of these decisions regarding the future Expansion Draft inform decisions made this summer. What happens if Nashville loses a Luke Haakenson via the Expansion Draft based on our initial protected and exposed lists? Luckily, Mike Jacobs performed a bit of future-proofing by acquiring Jacob Shaffelburg as he fits squarely into a similar role as Haakenson, but with a higher upside. 

MLS roster building is a game of chess. You always need to be thinking three moves ahead. 

Where the holes remain after the summer and heading into the winter

The biggest question about Nashville’s roster remains the same as it has been since Day 1. Who is going to play as the striker?

By default, it is the highest profile position in most clubs. Nashville has been lucky enough that initial depth signings have managed to hold down the position. But if the Boys in Gold are to make serious challenges for trophies, they need an upper echelon MLS striker. Over a year in, it is safe to say that Aké Loba is not going to make his breakthrough into Gary Smith’s preferred XI. If Nashville can reopen his DP slot by either finding him a move outside the league or buying out his contract, the search for a top-level striker will renew again.

Goalkeeper has become a question mark for Nashville SC that may need sorting out this winter. Joe Willis has seemingly overcome a shaky spell earlier in the season and reestablished himself as Nashville’s starter. But his place is by no means set in stone. His contract expires this season, although the club does hold an option to extend his deal another year. Elliot Pannico showed flashes of potential in his first few outings in blue and gold. Does Nashville make the switch next year and hand the younger Pannico the #1 shirt or even look for an outside replacement? More on that in a minute. 

There are two other situations worth monitoring to quickly touch on. I discussed earlier that Nashville may find itself short a midfielder heading into next season with the need to get younger and add more ball-progressing ability. Also, Mike Jacobs may want to keep his eye on an attacking winger or two. With the return of the 4-2-3-1 as Gary Smith’s default formation, it creates a continuing need for wingers. 

Free Agency targets

We will end this mini-book by doing a little Christmas shopping. Making a Christmas wishlist in August is ordinarily the territory for only the most dedicated deal hunters. But for MLS General Managers, like Mike Jacobs, August is the perfect time to start dreaming up a Christmas wish list.  It is not too early to begin eye-balling free agency targets. MLS free agency begins in mid-December and the time to start compiling a target list and dropping hints to agents is now. 

A few weeks ago, the MLS Players Association released the list of potential free agents this offseason. I suggest largely ignoring anyone with a club option for extension. The vast majority of these players will have their club option triggered.

But the true out-of-contract players still leave a few intriguing names to discuss as potential targets for Nashville.

The first one is NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson. The Georgia native has maintained his standing as an elite MLS goalkeeper and would significantly upgrade the position for Nashville. For a team built on a defensive identity with a penchant for one-goal games, having a top-level goalkeeper could push Nashville over the top. A move to Tennessee would bring Johnson closer to home and pair him up with fellow Georgia natives and USMNT teammates Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moore.

The other potential target that makes a degree of sense for Nashville is Toronto FC midfielder, Jonathan Osorio. If McCarty does hang up his boots, Osorio could be one worth targeting. He will not come cheap and does not help significantly decrease the average age of Nashville’s midfield. But Osorio is an excellent box-to-box midfielder with standout ball-progression ability. A three-man midfield rotation of Osorio, Sean Davis, and Anibal Godoy would maintain the strength of the Coyote’s core, central unit.

Nashville made a pair of moves this summer that will immediately contribute and improve the overall talent level. Like most supporters, I had been beating the Shaq Moore drum for quite a while. I’m also really intrigued by the potential of Jacob Shaffelburg. But there are still holes and weak spots in this team. If Nashville are to make a serious run at silverware, they need to make a splash this winter.

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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