Nashville traded away CJ Sapong on Tuesday morning, bringing in much-deeded defensive depth in Lukas MacNaughton plus extra allocation money. Sapong has been a core player for Nashville since he arrived in 2021, playing 77 matches and scoring 17 goals, behind only Hany Mukhtar in that stretch.
Sapong hadn’t scored since May 29, 2023. He certainly contributed in other aspects, most notably his partnership with Hany Mukhtar.
At the end of the day, strikers are ultimately judged by their goalscoring. Sapong is on a 331-day scoreless streak, which ultimately made him expendable for Nashville. Despite the move coming as a surprise, here are some reasons why the trade makes sense.
1. Nashville prioritize defensive depth
This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the fact that their third-choice center back is out for the year, and that Gary Smith spoke openly about needing a replacement. Trading a key attacking player makes it more of a surprise (more on that later).
Saturday’s draw with LAFC made it clear how badly Nashville needed another center back. Once Walker Zimmerman came off, Nashville immediately conceded and looked incredibly fragile. Despite having Josh Bauer, a natural center back, on the bench, Smith opted to play Dan Lovitz out of position as a left center back. To me, this was an indicator that Smith doesn’t quite trust Bauer to play in a back four against a high-caliber opponent, and he only brought him on later in the match in a switch to a back three.
Up until the 2023 season, Jack Maher was Nashville’s third center back. His usage is an example of what Nashville were looking for; a starting-caliber center back who can play meaningful minutes, while not being relied on every week to start. They thought they had this in Nick DePuy (and in fairness, I think it would have been a perfect signing barring his injury), and they should have this again in MacNaughton.
Since 2022, MacNaughton has a Goals Added (G+) score of -0.03 per 96. Jack Maher has a -0.04. While it’s certainly not the ultimate way to evaluate a player, it’s a good snapshot of the caliber of player Nashville think they’re getting. With Walker Zimmerman almost guaranteed to miss matches this summer on international duty, with injuries happening to defenders, and with squad rotation necessary as fixtures pile up.
Everyone knows Nashville are a defense-first team. Fans may not like it, but keeping a clean sheet is their first priority in any game, and it’s worked for them. They were one injury away from a defensive catastrophe. Signing MacNaughton alleviates that.
2. Trading Sapong manages budget charge for Nashville
Sapong made $550,000 in guaranteed compensation last season. We won’t know the full details of his 2023 compensation, it’s likely that he returned to Nashville on a reduced budget charge. Trading Sapong gets Nashville off the hook for some or all of his compensation, with $200,000 in GAM coming the other way.
Combined, Teal Bunbury and Ethan Zubak made $574,167 in 2023, just marginally more than Sapong. With Lukas MacNaughton’s compensation at just $86,100, Nashville have opened a lot of budget space, as well as moving on for a 34-year-old striker who, while important, hadn’t scored in 331 days.
It also continues Nashville’s trend of moving on from assets at a profit. Alistair Johnston was selected in the SuperDraft and then traded for $1 million in GAM, plus a sell-on fee. Daniel Ríos was signed for a minimal transfer fee from Chivas Guadalajara in 2019, and then was traded in 2022 for $500k in GAM, plus a sell-on fee. Most recently, Dave Romney was acquired for $275k ahead of Nashville’s expansion team, and then traded for $525k in 2023 after three solid seasons in Nashville.
Nashville and Mike Jacobs have been excellent at finding good players on cheap deals, getting a few strong seasons out of them, and then moving on from them at a profit. Sapong, initially signed as a free agent, is the latest in a long line of those deals.
3. Trading Sapong signals intent for a summer move
Jacobs has been adamant throughout his time in Nashville that the best attackers in the global transfer market are available in the summer transfer window. Nashville signed their most recent Designated Player attackers (Jhonder Cádiz and Aké Loba) in the summer windows, and while they can’t sign another DP until Loba is off the books, all signs point to adding attacking strength in the summer.
By signing MacNaughton, a Canadian international who has U.S. and Belgian citizenship, Nashville don’t need to use the international roster spot they recently acquired. This gives them more flexibility to target an international DP in the summer window when those roster spots will be sold at a premium.
Moving Sapong out also opens roster space for Nashville. While they’ll have to manage the next 13 matches with Teal Bunbury and Ethan Zubak as the lone strikers, it leaves room for a much-needed attacking upgrade. Bunbury has been more dangerous in front of goal for the last year, and sticking with him as the starter in the near term may well be an upgrade.
With MLS breaking for the newly-established Leagues Cup in mid-July, Nashville could feasibly add a striker early in the July window, use the League’s Cup to get their new signing adapted and up to speed, and still have 10 MLS matches after the tournament to push for playoff positioning.