Building a Nashville SC roster: What are the remaining needs?

The latest entry in #Project2019.

nashville sc, ian mcgrath, bosst fitclub, football, soccer
Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

We’ve looked at the personnel turnover for Nashville SC from multiple angles this offseason, but there’s one important question remaining: what needs have yet to be filled?

The club has augmented its offensive and defensive ranks with all-league-caliber talent, including the top two scorers in USL last year (both on loan from Nashville MLS), a couple players who were on MLS contracts last year, and some under-recognized talent in addition to those who were named to All-USL teams at the conclusion of the 2018 season.

Who’s left to be added? From the offseason tracker, here is the makeup of last year’s team as compared to what has been signed to fill the departing players:

  • 14 returning (one goalie, three central defenders one of whom can also play fullback, two fullback/wingbacks, four defense-minded central midfielders, two midfield/forward types who can also be wingers, two strikers, one of whom can also be a winger)
  • 14 players out (two keepers, four defenders, five midfielders, three forwards/wingers)
  • Six players in so far (two strikers, one forward/winger, a fullback who can also slide inside, a center back, and a goalie)

If you assume – unfairly so, it must be noted – that the roster will have the same positional makeup, that means Technical Director Mike Jacobs will still be on the hunt for a goalie, two defenders, and five midfielders.

However, it’s also worth noting that the majority of those players got either very little or no playing time last year. Will the composition of this year’s roster be wrapped up with depth pieces? Or will, like the players already added to last year’s core, there be an upward, aspirational philosophy in not only augmenting the returning guys, but perhaps supplanting them as contributors.

I would imagine there has to be a focus on adding midfielders whether they become depth pieces or are expected to be contributors: even though most of the departed players (Martim Galvão, Josh Hughes, Blake Levine, Ian McGrath) didn’t see USL time (Ish Jome, who contributed in multiple positions, is the exception), the team needs depth and quite frankly could use another high-powered, technical player to augment the returning group. A fully healthy Lebo Moloto and a step forward from Ramone Howell (who is more defensively-minded, but does have upside on offense) could certainly fill that role pretty well – especially with the added talent up top to bang home more of the goals – but a creative midfielder could be the lone missing piece among potential contributors.

On the other hand, if NSC continues to make signings that indicate the intention to compete for the USL Championship, uh, championship, and to build toward the MLS roster, you could continue to see more exciting signings.

A 1,000-minute defender is probably necessary to give the current players a bit of rest (whether that’s a fullback or more versatile guy) in addition to a contributing midfielder. A third goalie will likely come from the ranks of recent college graduates, and the rest will likely be young pros whose primary goal for the year is to get high-level experience in practice to build toward a professional career.

Is that a team that can compete to win the USL title? With what projects to be another strong defense and the added scoring punch up top, the most important pieces may already be in place.

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Nashville SC plus/minus for 2018

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Ramone Howell (4) led the team in plus-minus, albeit in a very limited sample size. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

As we trudge through the offseason, let us not forget through all the player acquisitions and scheduling announcements that the 2019 season will be built from a baseline that was established this Summer.

Certainly everyone is entitled to an opinion about the relative quality of certain players (and I have mine, too), but as I’ve tried to do in the past, some sort of objective measure of contributions is always worthwhile. No single statistic or group of statistics can tell the whole story, but the larger the body of data we build, the clearer the picture we have.

One measure that I find potentially useful – with some significant caveats – is a hockey-style plus/minus number. The calculation is pretty simple: goals when a given play is on the field minus goals against when that player is on the field. Unlike hockey, there are limited substitutions in soccer, so it’s both a little easier to calculate and carries a slightly different meaning (and can also be normalized to a number per 90 minutes played). Since man-up and man-down statuses are rarer in soccer, I also ignored those situations rather than excising them from the number like they’d be on the ice.

Without further ado:

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 12.28.02 PM.pngRamone Howell’s team-leading +6.66 per 90 is a small sample size distortion: with only 27 minutes on the field, he was playing during game-tying goals against Cincinnati in the regular-season finale and the opening round of the playoffs.

With 3,180 minutes played for the team (35 matches plus 30 minutes of extra time in the playoff match), your mileage may vary in terms of how many minutes a player needs in order for the number to be meaningful. I would handicap it at about 1,000 just based on the eyeball test, even in the situations where the expectations somewhat match up to the observed value.

Ryan James probably falls into that range (at least for me), as well. James’s situation does point out one of the weaknesses of a plus-minus in soccer, especially with limited substitutions: especially late in the year, he was mostly coming onto the field late in games with a lead, so his team wasn’t trying to score in most of his time on the field. Obviously that they got scored on in some of those situations is less than ideal, but the leading game state doesn’t lend itself to a positive plus-minus.

Indeed, game state is something that I’d be more interested in exploring – and would have, but the spreadsheets were going to get really complicated really fast, and quite honestly I wasn’t sure how I’d like to handle it. Certainly it’s fair to say that a defender who is getting a bunch of +/-0 while playing mostly when his team had a one- or two-goal lead is a heck of a lot better than a striker ending with +/-0 coming onto the field when his team is down by a score and looking for a goal.

So, who are some of the other surprises? Ish Jome certainly stands out to the positive, and I’d say both Bradley Bourgeois and Bolu Akinyode are lower than we’d have expected. Jome’s season did include a silly red that may have cost his team a result against Bethlehem Steel, and he faded after that – including being benched over the next four contests. In his first several games, though, he was a very solid performer. It’s possible that the way we remember his quality over the course of the season is unfairly tainted by the way it tailed off.

Bourgeois to some extent suffered from the same condition as James, making only late-game appearances early before supplanting London Woodberry, and then for a couple games late when he was working his way back to fitness after injury. A fully healthy Bourgeois who begins the year in the lineup is probably a little higher up the chart.

Akinyode’s low number is interesting to me because he played so much of the season that his plus-minus is pretty representative of his time on the pitch (with the caveat that he’s not the sole driving force behind a number ending up where it did, of course). He also happened to miss one of the worst results of the year – a two-goal loss to Ottawa, which Michael Reed also missed the action in with an early injury – due to international travel issues. He finished +5 on the year, so his number is hardly damning, but per-90, it’s the lowest of any returning player.

James was only joined in the negative by London Woodberry (I’d say his negative number was fairly reached, with a red card in the Ottawa game that facilitated the Fury’s second goal, and the only own-goal of the year, in a one-goal loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies), along with Robin Shroot and CJ Cochran, who both suffer from small sample size, though you could also say they didn’t earn a larger slice of playing time with their performances.

Going forward, it’s worth noting that, aside from Jome and David Edgar (or depending on how you want to look at it, Jome and Akinyode’s finish below Edgar), every returning player finished with a better number per-90 than every player who will not be back with the team in 2019. Nashville SC has consolidated the best performers on the roster – with the same caveats about the limited meaningfulness of the singular number – and let the other guys seek other opportunities.

The players added this offseason are safely assumed to be upgrades: the top two scorers in the league, an all-USL defender, and two highly successful guys who didn’t quite earn league honors. That’s pretty solid. Building on the core that was established last season, trimming those who don’t play up to expectations, and adding highly successful talent to the top of the roster could just be a recipe for an exciting 2019.

Project 2019: Assessing moves so far with TransferMarkt

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Right: a person spending much more money on players than he did last year. Left: one of the players on whom he’s spending more of that money. Courtesy Nashville MLS

We know Nashville has added tons of topend USL talent in recent weeks, but is there a way we can quantify that? In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski assert that roster spend is the most important factor in determining league position (and imply a causal relationship – you can read my overall thoughts and some skepticism on the soundness of some of those takes in my review).

The best resource out there – and I say that fully understanding that it’s extremely flawed, but at the very least, better than nothing – for determining the market value of individual players is TransferMarkt. Let’s use that site to evaluate the value of players leaving Nashville SC this offseason, those joining, and of course the 14 individuals retained by the club from 2018 into next year.

According to the site, Nashville’s new players carry the following market values:

  • Cameron Lancaster: $475,000
  • Kharlton Belmar: $375,000
  • Daniel Ríos: $350,000
  • Ken Tribbett: $350,000
  • Darnell King: $275,000
  • Connor Sparrow: $175,000

Again, keep in mind that we’re not considering those values to be gospel (circumstantial evidence – who has signed an MLS contract and who has joined on an MLS contract) would imply at the very least that Ríos should be first- or second-most expensive on the list. We are going to use them as a rough estimate, though, and assume that the values are pretty strongly correlated with wages (as the Soccernomics principle concentrates on those, rather than the amount paid in a transfer, though only Ríos has joined on a transfer this season – the other five have been out-of-contract).

That’s an average value of $333,000 per player, with a median of $350,000. In six players, Nashville SC has added $2 million in value to the roster, per TransferMarkt.

The 12 players who were not retained by Nashville SC had a total value of $1,325,000. That means, in twice as many players, there was 66% of the value. With an average value among that group of $110,000 (median: $125,000), the six players Nashville has added are on average three times as valuable as those departing.

For a club that wasn’t among the biggest spenders in USL last year, it’s clear Nashville wants to make a statement in 2019 that they aren’t going to scrimp on the budget in their final year before heading to USL.

The 14 players retained have an average value of $183,900 (median: $175,000), so they tend to be in between those two groups: Nashville SC is retaining the core of last year’s group and adding reinforcements on the top end in terms of market value. (For what it’s worth, the highest-valued player retained is Michael Reed at $300k, and while he’s a good player, he’s also 31 years old and losing sell-on value, in case you haven’t read my many caveats so far about how TransferMarkt shouldn’t be taken as gospel).

Indeed: Five of the top six players on the 2018 and/or 2019 rosters are new signings, according to TransferMarkt, while nine of the bottom 13 are players who will be playing for other clubs next year. Among the four who are coming back, two are young developmental guys (Alan Winn and Ramone Howell) and two are MLS Champions whose assessed value is low only because they’re getting way up in years (Matt Pickens and Kosuke Kimura).

All told, NSC has netted an additional $675,000 in roster value, while netting six fewer players than were with the team last year. That means going from an overall average of $150,000 per player last year to $228,750 this year. That may not seem like a hug difference, but it’s half-again as valuable per player, and an indication of strong desire to invest in the roster to win now.

(One more warning about not taking the numbers of TransferMarkt too seriously, and as an estimate rather than gospel? Sounds good)

 

Nashville SC 2018-19 offseason tracker

Jacobs and Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre
Two dudes out here makin moves. Courtesy Nashville SC

Who is back? Who is new? Who is gone? Stay tuned here all offseason for the latest developments on the Nashville SC roster.

Players returning Detail Players in From Players out To
Bolu Akinyode Year two of multi-year deal Kharlton Belmar Sporting Kansas City (MLS) Brandon Allen Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL)
Bradley Bourgeois Year two of multi-year deal Darnell King San Antonio FC (USL) Micah Bledsoe South Georgia Tormenta (USL League One)
Justin Davis Year two of multi-year deal Cameron Lancaster Louisville City FC (USL) CJ Cochran Fresno FC (USL)
Liam Doyle Year two of multi-year deal Daniel Ríos CD Guadalajara (Mexico) Michael DeGraffenreidt ?
Ramone Howell Signed to new deal Connor Sparrow Real Salt Lake (MLS) Jordan Dunstan ?
Tucker Hume Signed to new deal Malcolm Stewart Ocean City Nor’Easters (USL League Two) Martim Galvão THOI Lakathamias (Cyprus)
Kosuke Kimura Year two of multi-year deal Ken Tribbett Penn FC (USL) Josh Hughes Richmond Kickers (USL League One)
Matt LaGrassa Year two of multi-year deal Danny Vitiello University of Albany (NCAA) Ryan James Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL)
Ropapa Mensah Rights purchased from Inter Allies (Ghana) after loan Ish Jome ?
Lebo Moloto Year two of multi-year deal Ian McGrath ?
(Scotland)
Matt Pickens Year two of multi-year deal Robin Shroot ?
Michael Reed Year two of multi-year deal Kris Tyrpak Austin Bold (USL)
Taylor Washington Year two of multi-year deal London Woodberry Austin Bold (USL)
Alan Winn Year two of multi-year deal

Nashville SC announces returning players

From Club release: NASHVILLE (November 14, 2018) – The majority of the main contributors of Nashville Soccer Club’s successful inaugural season that finished in a USL Cup Playoff appearance this season will be back for 2019, pending USL and federation approval. Each of Nashville’s 12 highest minutes-played contributors will be back next year, including all four primary defenders and starting keeper on the league’s second-best defense.
Matt Pickens and Alan Winn are two players who return under contract. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
Returning under contract in 2019 will be keeper Matt Pickens, defenders Justin Davis, Liam Doyle, Bradley Bourgeois and Kosuke Kimura, midfielders Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa, Bolu Akinyode, Taylor Washington and Lebo Moloto, and forward Alan Winn. Forward Tucker Hume and midfielder Ramone Howell have been re-signed by Nashville SC. Hume will return after scoring seven goals in the final three months of the season to propel SC into the playoffs. Howell, meanwhile, made his first two USL appearances as a rookie in Nashville’s final regular season game and playoff game, both against FC Cincinnati. Finally, forward Ropapa Mensah has been purchased from Inter Allies FC in Ghana following a season-long loan in 2018 with Nashville SC. Mensah became Nashville’s first-ever goalscorer when he struck against Atlanta United FC of MLS in Nashville’s opening friendly at First Tennessee Park. The club would like to extend its sincere gratitude to every player on the 2018 Nashville SC roster for each of their contributions on and off the field, making for a successful inaugural season for Nashville SC. That means your departures are as follows (in order of minutes played): F Brandon Allen, D London Woodberry, D Ryan James, M Ish Jome, GK CJ Cochran, M/F Kris Tyrpak, M/F Robin Shroot, and D Jordan Dunstan. And several players who never saw the field in USL play (alphabetical): GK Micah Bledsoe, D Michael DeGraffenreidt, M Josh Hughes, M Blake Levine, and M Ian McGrath. Very few surprises there. See here for my predictions. I was wrong on Bledsoe (thought he’d be kept for depth), James (thought his versatility would keep him around one more year), Cochran (really thought he’d have a chance to compete for more minutes with Pickens beginning to transition into coaching), and Tyrpak (the spark he provided late in the season seemed worth keeping around). Four incorrect calls, two on backup goalies, is hardly something to be ashamed of, no? See some of my predictions/ideas for who might fill in the roster here and here.

Who stays and goes for Nashville SC?

With the season in the rearview mirror (and several USL teams already announcing major personnel shuffles), it’s time to take a look at predicting who will return from Nashville SC’s inaugural roster.

nashville sc, ian mcgrath, bosst fitclub, football, soccer
Here is what a soccer team looks like. How much of it will be the same in the 2019 vintage? Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

My assumption is that the organization will try to keep the majority of players who played significant roles this year. They may not be able to do so in all instances, whether because a player seeks other opportunities, if the money doesn’t line up, or any other reason. If there’s a change in the technical staff (which I am not expecting), the whole thing could go out the window anyway. Gary Smith reiterated a number of times throughout the year that putting together a squad from scratch made for a tough chemistry situation at times during the year. As much continuity as possible, then, is the preference.

Here’s what I predict, in numerical order on the roster:

1) Micah Bledsoe (GK). Stays – Nashville SC will need a third keeper who is competent, but unlikely to get too restless if playing time is few and far between. Nashville SC will probably have that role available, and Bledsoe has Nashville roots (Lipscomb alum) likely to be comfortable staying in town – with potential loan moves if he wants to seek playing time.

2) Justin Davis (LB). Stays – One of Nashville’s key defensive players over the course of the year.

3) Ropapa Mensah (F/W). Stays – Mensah came into his own at the end of the season as a winger, even if he’s more a scoring forward in the long run. Still just 20 years old and is likely a key player into the MLS era, as well.

4) Ramone Howell (CM). Stays – I would have said otherwise most of the way through the year, but his late playing time came with comments from Nashville SC headman Gary Smith. He indicated that they see Howell as a great developmental prospect, and at 23 years old, he still has room to grow.

5) Liam Doyle (CB). Stays – Named the team’s defensive MVP, and started nearly every game in the middle.

6) Josh Hughes (CM). Goes – Didn’t register a USL minute for the team. While he’s been with Gary Smith at multiple stops, it seems the 26-year old wasn’t a fit for USL play in 2018.

7) Ryan James (LB/RB/CB). Stays – His versatility was key early in the year when Kosuke Kimura wasn’t 100%. While his playing time dried up a bit later in the year, he has a role to play on a solid USL team.

8) Robin Shroot (F/M). Goes – Shroot is another player with a long relationship to manager Gary Smith, but he only got a smattering of playing time. At 31 years old when the next USL season rolls around, he may want to look for a place to gain playing time in the twilight of his career.

10) Lebo Moloto (M/F). Stays – Assuming he’s fully healed up from his late-season knee injury – which seems likely – the creative engine of the Nashville SC midfield still has a role to play with this club. With longer connections to Technical Director Mike Jacobs – who signed him in Kansas City in 2017 – he has the relationships that show the staff’s high opinion of him.

11) Ish Jome (LB/LM). Goes – Jome got plenty of playing time when he first signed with the team, saw that dry up after an ill-advised red card, and then came on again at the end of the year. Still, a team with decent depth at his primary positions may want to offload some salary of a former MLS player (and Jome may want to seek a situation where he’s a surefire first-choice guy).

12) Tucker Hume (F). Stays – He had a strong run to end the regular season, and as the best pure hold-up striker on the roster, has a skillset that can’t be replicated by other returning players.

13) Ian McGrath (M/D). Goes – McGrath has connections to Jacobs through University of Evansville, but a guy who couldn’t find the field in USL play this year may want to look for other options to get playing time, whether that’s a move to a less-established USL club or dropping a level.

14) Jordan Dunstan (CB/LB). Goes – Dunstan got a bit of the field in US Open Cup and one USL minute. However, He was probably hoping for a bit more than that. NSC’s roster is loaded with left-footed center backs (and Gary Smith appears to like balance in the strong foot of his backlline), and Dunstan probably wants playing time elsewhere.

15) Michael DeGraffenreidt (CB/RB). Goes – Didn’t see playing time even when Nashville’s defensive depth was scary. Moves on for playing time.

17) Michael Reed (CM). Stays – A Gary Smith compatriot from the Atlanta Silverbacks and the captain of this team, Reed stays.

18) Matt Pickens (GK). Stays – The MVP of this team has a role if he wants it. There is also a possibility that the player-coach retires from the former responsibility to fully focus on the latter at 37 years old come the 2019 season.

19) Alan Winn (W/LM/RM/F). Stays – Winn signed with Nashville SC over joining MLS Colorado Rapids in the preseason, so he’s certainly a player with the ability to move to a higher level. It would probably behoove this organization to develop him one more year and hopefully make him a signing of the inaugural MLS season.

20) Matt LaGrassa (CM/RM/F). Stays – LaGrassa didn’t play quite as big a role as he might have been expecting, so if most of Nashville’s central midfield talent returns, he may think about moving back closer to his home on the West Coast, but Nashville SC’s staff likes him enough to keep him around if it’s their decision.

21) CJ Cochran (GK). Stays – It’s only a matter of time before Cochran is one of the USL’s top goalkeepers. He’s a great shot-stopper who’s still growing in other aspects of the game. I was surprised to not see him get a couple more appearances this year, but especially if Matt Pickens begins a transition to coaching, Cochran could be a key player.

22) Bradley Bourgeois (CB). Stays – Bourgeois is one of the lifebloods of this team, despite not looking the part of a true centerback at under 6-0. The defense seemed to struggle without him available, and while his physical limitations may mean he’s not an MLS guy a couple years down the road, he’s a great USL player.

23) Taylor Washington (LB/LM). Stays – Still a relatively young guy (he won’t turn 26 until well into the 2019 season), Washington’s speed made a difference for Nashville SC this year, and he has plenty to contribute. Even just a bit of continued development could see him with MLS opportunities (including joining Nashville SC in 2020).

26) Kris Tyrpak (W). Stays – Mid-season signing took a while to find playing time, but was a squad regular over the final month or so of the year. A high-upside goal-scorer when he has time to settle into a squad.

27) Kosuke Kimura (RB). Stays – Like Pickens, he’s probably on the roster as long as he wants to be… but turning 35 early in the 2019 season, he might be getting close to making the same transition from player-coach to just coach.

28) London Woodberry (CB). Goes – Woodberry was the third centerback for this team (when healthy) following the departure of David Edgar, but at times was a noticeable downgrade from Bourgeois and/or Davis. He’ll be 28 next year, and despite an MLS pedigree (two years with FC Dallas, three with the New England Revolution), might look for more playing time at another USL team.

29) Blake Levine (CM). Goes – Mid-season signing didn’t get any minutes. Likely uses the development he received to find another professional opportunity after starting 2018 in NPSL.

30) Bolu Akinyode (CM). Stays – A solid player in defensive midfield, his care for the ball and decent tackling were a major asset this season. He also proved to be a bit of a liability at times tracking back after giveaways, and needs to round that part of his game into better form in addition to being a bit more ambitious with passes forward. He’s still just 24, and I think playing his second-best position (his speed, size, and skillset could make him an MLS0-caliber center back) – there’s a role for a guy with this potential.

32) Brandon Allen (F). Goes – I was torn on this one. Allen was brought in to be a pure poacher/goal-getter/finisher, and ran way too hot and cold to be counted upon as the guy who’s always going to finish. He’s also pretty open about his career goals: he wants to be in MLS, and as quickly as possible. If he’s willing to be patient, knowing that Nashville SC could be an MLS opportunity in a year’s time, he could stay. Otherwise, finding a USL team that will allow him to be “the guy” and pile up goals in an audition for a move up earlier than that could be on his mind.

Up next: What are the areas that the Boys in Gold will need to shore up this offseason (and who might be some candidates to fill those roles)?

Nashville SC ships Michael Cox to St. Louis in exchange for international spot

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Cox scored the first competitive goal in Nashville SC club history. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

From club release:

NASHVILLE (July 12, 2018) – Nashville SC has agreed to trade forward Michael Cox to Saint Louis FC of the United Soccer League (USL) in exchange for an international roster spot. The acquisition of the roster spot brings the team’s total to eight for the rest of the 2018 season.

“Michael was a good ambassador for Nashville Soccer Club, and we are happy for the opportunity that he will have in St Louis. We would like to wish him the best of luck in the future,” Nashville SC technical director and VP of soccer operations Mike Jacobs. “This transaction will allow us the flexibility to actively explore potential additions during the summer transfer window, and to continue to put Gary [Smith] and his coaching staff in the best possible position to succeed.”

Cox appeared in five games for Nashville SC in 2018 with three starts, totaling 263 minutes. His only goal of the season came on a penalty kick against Bethlehem Steel in a 1-0 win for Nashville on March 31.

Nashville SC will be back in action on the road on July 21 against Ottawa Fury FC. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. CST.

My reaction: On the field, not much impact. Cox had been a depth player (or even below that) since the beginning of the year, particularly once Ropapa Mensah started to get closer to full fitness – though he’s still not there – and the writing was on the wall for every forward who hadn’t been getting playing time as soon as Brandon Allen signed.

I had actually believed it most likely that a Canadian team would pick him up (there’s been an increasing trend toward those clubs loading up with their countrymen, and he’d be an improvement for either Canadian Club in the USL), for example if he traveled with NSC to Ottawa next weekend, and simply didn’t come back.

Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see how the added international spot is used. Nashville hasn’t really explored the transfer market proper a whole lot in its brief existence as a professional club, and adding an international slot (while waiting until a transfer window) implies that there’s a desire for a relatively splashy signing. With the finishing ability returning to pre-Allen levels lately, I’d bet on a player who can put the ball in the net.