Continuity is the theme as Nashville SC prepares for its second act in MLS.
Apart from some recent issues in getting its final preseason scrimmages in, mostly due to the opponents issues, there is a surprising shortage of drama.
That is mostly due to the fact that head coach Gary Smith and company put together a real contender of a roster in the inaugural campaign last year.
Now it will be about keeping the excitement alive, and with no obvious needs to fill, Smith’s approach to the offseason involved carefully considering the few changes that were made.
“We sort of broke it down in a slightly different way this year, and it was extremely helpful. We sat down and spoke to the guys whose options we weren’t going to pick up, and had a brief discussion with those lads.” Smith told SBI. “And then for the guys that we were keeping, made it clear that we’re positive about the future, but I left the conversations with those guys still after Christmas and it gave me some time to really decompress and to let a lot of things ferment and settle into my mind as to how we moved, developed, the sort of path we’ve taken, and some of the challenges that we’ve overcome,”
All things considered, the year was a roaring success. Nashville came in with a complete team and endured the wild year better than most.
You can omit the “good for an expansion team” moniker when speaking of 2020, too. For all involved, there was real disappointment in losing to eventual champion Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup semifinal. There is also still belief that it was a premature exit.
“I feel most confident about now going into this year is the fact that you have a group of guys that are very respectful of what we were able to accomplish last year, but are still not satisfied or content.” Defender Daniel Lovitz told SBI. “We were set to make the long run and we knew we were a tough team to play against, and we were built for the playoffs last year”
Nashville SC routed Inter Miami in the play-in round, upset Toronto FC in extra time, and held then Crew scoreless for 90 minutes before being outdone in the extra time.
The playoff run showed a Nashville SC team that was clearly still improving, and that improvement has the second-year club understandably confident that it can have an even better second season.
Here is a closer look at 2021 Nashville SC:
2021 Nashville SC Season Preview
2020 Finish: 7th in Eastern Conference (8-8-7, 32 points, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.)
Key Additions: C.J. Sapong, Rodrigo Piñeiro, Nick Hinds
Key Losses: David Accam
Newcomer to Watch: Rodrigo Piñeiro
A 21-year-old Uruguayan winger, Piñeiro is looking to stick on the roster as the go-to option on the right.
Unless the hand is forced by an injury to Alex Muyl, don’t expect that to be the case coming out of the gate, though.
“He’s working his way, culturally, into a new way of life. It’s the first time he’s been out of Uruguay. New group, new environment, new style, and a lot of demands,” Smith said of the newcomer.
Piñeiro’s professional career began in 2016, and he’s journeyed through the Uruguayan ranks.
Pressure is On: Jhonder Cadiz
After coming in as a summer addition in 2020, 25-year-old Cadiz is on loan from Portuguese giant Benfica and is slotted to be a designated player.
Cadiz was good for two goals in seven appearances which were all off the bench, but 2021 will need to see him take on a bigger workload and be a leader in production if he wants to stay in Nashville.
“If you have a difficult year, you could be finding yourself in a completely different club, and not necessarily of your own accord.” Smith said. “Jhonder is desperate to do well and to be in the U.S. He wants to be in Nashville. He wants to be here permanently,”
He should be the starter, and given the opportunity to have the year he needs to have, but Nashville’s attacking unit is deep. Pressure looms until that long-term security comes in the form of a contract.
“Lots of things can happen,” said Smith. “But I think ultimately, he wants to show what he’s about and what he’s capable of. And that will mean in the end, he gets what he wants.”
Nashville SC will be a contender in the East again.
The team had a harder road than most in 2020 and found a way to a seventh place finish, holding down the third-best goals allowed metric across the entire league.
In terms of both starters and depth pieces, the defensive side of the field is set and there was no reason to tinker.
There are no holes in the attacking department to speak of, but if Nashville SC is to rise to the upper echelon and challenge for hardware, it will be done with more production than what was seen in 2020’s slim 24-goal tally.
“About the front line… My true hope is that we start to see much better relationships formed and fostered through being together for a longer period,” Smith said. “When we saw Randall (Leal) Hany (Hany Mukhtar), and Jhonder on the field at the end of last season, we did have a different spark on that front line. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen often enough.”
Beyond Cádiz and his audition, the striker department is loaded. Club mainstay Daniel Ríos was rewarded with a contract extension last year and he’ll be battling with league veteran C.J. Sapong for minutes in the supporting role.
Winger and Designated Player Randall Leal remains on the left wing safely, and there could be a position battle on the horizon between Muyl and Piñeiro when the latter gets up to speed.
Support will be provided by Dominique Badji and Abu Danladi, who may need to reinvent themselves a bit as they’re historically central.
Hany Mukhtar, Nashville’s first-ever DP remains the key playmaker after a four-goal, three-assist debut. Not a massive season by the numbers, but considering there was a lot of rotation in front of him, this year should be better if the best-laid plans come to life.
The non-story in the remaining lines is the exciting thing for Nashville fans.
In holding section of the midfield, 33-year-old Dax McCarty still has plenty in the tank, and his link with Anibal Godoy was crucial in helping the backline perform as one of the league’s best.
What’s more is the work that is done in tandem between the units which will help keep it that way, so imagine them all as a single group.
“I think that has been seen, the backline, goalkeeper, and midfield density have underpinned everything that goes on,” Smith said.
Going left to right, Lovitz, David Romney, Walker Zimmerman, and Alistair Johnston will remain in tact, and getting minutes as an outsider will not be easy. There was little rotation in the back in 2020, but second-year player Jack Maher will be one to keep an eye on as a development piece.
“We’re very collaborative,” Lovitz said. “We have a great group of guys but the competition has teeth to it, and we certainly have some scrimmages where we toe the line of what you would normally be seeing within a team, and how they compete, and I think that’s our strength.”
With the back four intact, and 2020 MLS shutout leader Joe Willis returning in goal, Nashville SC will once again have a strong defense to give it the foundation for a squad capable of improving on its impressive inaugural campaign.
Nashville SC Roster
Goalkeepers: Bryan Meredith, Elliot Panicco, Joe Willis
Defenders: Jalil Anibaba, Robert Castellanos, Nick Hinds, Alistair Johnston, Daniel Lovitz, Jack Maher, Eric Miller, Dave Romney, Walker Zimmerman
Midfielders: Brian Anunga, Handwalla Bwana, Anibal Godoy, Luke Haakenson, Matt LaGrassa, Randall Leal, Dax McCarty, Hany Mukhtar, Alex Muyl
Forwards: Dominique Badji, Jhonder Cádiz, Abu Danladi, Rodrigo Piñeiro, Daniel Rios, C.J. Sapong