Before the first kick of the ball, some MLS observers have already sorted 2020’s two expansion sides into opposite camps, based on the recent past.
Inter Miami are the next Atlanta United and LAFC, they suggest, two of the league’s most successful teams in their first MLS seasons who each caught the eye of fans and reached the postseason in Year 1.
Nashville aren’t offended, though. It’s actually exactly how they prefer it.
They aim to underpromise and overdeliver, building their inaugural roster a bit more quietly and discreetly materializing a sturdy squad with a premium placed on meaningful MLS experience.
That approach will be tested immediately, as Nashville head into their debut match against Atlanta in two weeks.
MLS experience and solidity
When GM Mike Jacobs and his front office started planning their roster, they used a homework assignment: Everyone go home, compile a reasonable XI we could build, and bring it back. The next day, as each lineup was revealed, every staffer had a midfield pairing of Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy.
Then Nashville went out and acquired McCarty and Godoy to hold down the center of the field. After seeing recent expansion clubs concede 70 goals or more, Godoy and McCarty are a good start at avoiding that fate. Their defensive unit wouldn’t be complete until this week, when they secured a player they thought might not to be attainable.
Via a blockbuster trade, Nashville acquired Walker Zimmerman from LAFC after a Best XI campaign as he was the defensive anchor of the Supporters’ Shield winning side. As Andrew Wiebe wrote when breaking down the deal, Nashville believe they got their Ike Opara, their Matt Besler, their Chad Marshall. A leader on and off the field, the defensive face of the franchise.
“Out of domestic players in our league, Walker was the one we were steadfast in trying to pursue,” Jacobs told MLSsoccer.com after the trade.
That’s not to say Nashville neglected the attack. It’s just built with fewer familiar names to MLS fans and more additions from abroad, including German attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar and Costa Rican winger Randall Leal.
Their creative burden will fall to those two, as well as MLS veteran David Accam. Expected to play in a 4-2-3-1, No. 9 is an open competition with Daniel Rios, Dom Badji and Abu Danladi each looking to convince head coach Gary Smith why they should be the starter. As long as goals come from somewhere, Nashville will be alright.
Down the depth chart, NSC aim to develop Colombian U-23 national team center back Miguel Nazarit, former Philadelphia Union and US youth int’l midfielder Derrick Jones as well as No. 2 overall SuperDraft selection Jack Maher.
Right now? Not much.
Jacobs and his staff are grasping flexibility tight to see where the club will need improvements as the season rolls on. They don’t want a situation where they need to make a move, are depleted of allocation money and unable to make key changes.
“Our hope isn’t to see how fast we can sign 30 players or spend all of our allocation money, our goal is to build a roster that has sustained success not only this season, but the future as well,” Jacobs said this week.
They were looking to sign a young DP center forward earlier this winter and made a bid for 21-year-old Ake Loba, but were rebuffed. Perhaps they reignite a move for other targets in the position over the year. Or, one of Rios/Badji/Danladi gets hot and convinces the decision-makers it’s not necessary.
As it stands…
Expected to be in a 4-2-3-1, Nashville could also switch to a three at the back set-up with their glut of central defenders. Or to steal an idea from Matt Doyle, they could play Jones as a third midfielder and shift Mukhtar out wide for an even more compact 4-3-3.
For now, heading towards opening day, this is what the depth chart may look like: