Profile: Malcolm Stewart

Nashville SC signed two players yesterday. I’ve already profiled Danny Vitiello, so it’s time to take a look at Malcolm Stewart.

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Courtesy Nashville SC

Stewart is originally from New York but grew up in Georgia, where he played for the Georgia United Development Academy, one of the programs those folded into Atlanta United’s academy. However, both of his parents are Jamaican, and that has afforded him the opportunity to play with that country’s youth national teams. We can go all the way back to his DA days and TopDrawerSoccer for one of the first substantive discussions of his game:

A strong, athletic center back on perhaps the best defense in the age group, Georgia has only conceded five goals so far on the year, and Stewart plays a big part in that. He’s in the running for some top programs as well.

His speed is a theme in a lot of breakdowns.

He spent two years at UNC Charlotte, where he had just two appearances as a true freshman but blossomed as a sophomore. He started 15 of 18 games played, anchoring a defense that allowed just 0.72 goals per game (while scoring 1.58, to give some context). He also contributed an assist.

He left Charlotte after two years, and after one year in the PDL with the Ocean City Nor’Easters (he made three appearances in the 2017 season, but didn’t accrue any statistics in 135 minutes on the pitch), he’s been in the Los Angeles Galaxy system – though he hasn’t appeared in any official matches – while modeling in the LA area.

Let’s go back to his film to get a little more detail, since a guy who hasn’t played in a competitive match in a couple years is understandably a little under-the-radar.

He’s a tall-strong central defender, coming in 6-3, 180 pounds while at Charlotte, and he uses that size to his advantage a bit in defending, giving him good slide tackling range and making him an intimidating player to take on.

There are also a few times (primarily going forward, which he’s pretty comfortable doing – about which more in a moment) that you get to see that burst of speed that he’s known for. It’s even what NSC coach Gary Smith mentioned on the signing.

“Malcom is a terrific prospect and has many qualities that are needed in the modern game,” said Smith. “He has tremendous pace, good physical stature and is hungry to achieve.”

Stewart shows decent technical ability, making some nice dribbles in traffic and keeping the ball in close range to his feet, or able to play himself into space. Certainly from the center back position, that desire and ability to get forward is not necessarily common. It probably indicates that Stewart’s self-label as a fullback probably isn’t just blowing smoke, despite his fairly huge stature for the position (and particularly at the USL level). While he played mostly CB in the Jamaica film available, he’s almost always a right back in the other clips.

He can be a little bit frantic on the ball, seemingly moving faster than he can think out the next move. Gaining comfort with the speed of the game will really help him there (though as things stand, it does give us a chance to see that he’s capable of swiping the ball right back with a standing tackle in the re-press if he loses it).

He has a pretty good leg to cross the ball, clear it long, or even put on the occasional shot. His long-range passing accuracy isn’t on display in the video, but presumably there’s some ability there.

He’ll turn 23 early in the season, so he’s a young guy with potential. Given that he hasn’t been seen (publicly) on the field in a couple years, that potential is really all we know. Maybe he’s improved enough to be an effective USL player, maybe he hasn’t spent enough time crafting his game in the interim. Obviously he impressed Nashville’s technical staff at his December tryout enough to at least earn a shot.

I would assume he’s more a depth piece unlikely to see much of the field this year, trying to work on his game at a high level as he works back toward a full-time career in soccer. At the same time, there’s a high element of the unknown here. If he can develop quickly (or if he has out of the public eye), the physical talent and technical skill are both there to potentially work his way into a much larger role.

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Profile: Danny Vitiello

danny vitiello nashville sc goalkeeper goalie albany
Courtesy University at Albany

Nashville SC’s third keeper is here! The Boys in Gold signed recent University of Albany graduate Danny Vitiello after an invite-only tryout in December. Vitiello is relatively old for a college kid, having redshirted as a true freshman and then played out all four years of his eligibility. Given that keepers can play well into their 30s, and that he’s likely a developmental player whose long-term future is not at Nashville SC, there aren’t concerns about that age.

His fifth year did not go so hot individually (No. 131 in the country with a save percentage of .713, as Albany finished No. 115 of 206 teams in the RPI), but as a junior he was No. 3 in the country (.879), he was No. 61 with a .773 as a sophomore, and as a redshirt freshman No. 48 at .787.

You may have some concerns that he didn’t peak as a senior, but as is often the case in college athletics, you can bet a lot of that is more tied to team success than it is to Vitiello’s individual performances, and… yep: this was the first year of his career they were sub-.500, and his team’s goals-for was among the weaker of his time in college. Certainly if he’d hit his junior-year mark, his team would have given up 13 fewer goals and probably been much better, but I’d take it as a team slump, rather than an individual one.

“Danny is a big, athletic, goalkeeper who’s enjoyed a lot of success at the club and high school level,” said Albany coach Trevor Gorman to the Danes’ website. “He has a number of positive qualities that have helped him play a major role in his team’s success.”

Vitiello also played in four PDL (now USL League Two) games with the Long Island Roughriders, playing every minute between the pipes in each. Only three of them have stats available, but his four goals allowed and 11 saves made in those contests are good for a .733 mark, about in line with his college numbers. He contributed in their US Open Cup games as well, though the stats from those games are often lost to the wilderness.

Further into the past, he comes from a Massapequa (N.Y.) program that is a powerhouse on Long Island, and Technical Director Mike Jacobs’s connections back to his home state (including as a former Rough Riders assistant coach) may have played a role in uncovering Vitiello.

To the film!

At 6-2, 185, he’s not the tall, long intimidator that you often think of pro goalkeepers being. However, he certainly has adequate size for the position, and guys have been very successful despite much smaller frames.

He doesn’t have freaky-instant reactions to shots (that’s what separates a guy like Connor Sparrow in terms of being a top-flight pro prospect), but they’re more than adequate, and he tracks the ball very well once it leaves the defender’s foot. That allows him to be in position either way, and he’s athletic enough to cover both posts unless the ball is absolutely blasted. He can react to the ball in flight even when his dive doesn’t take him directly to it. He also seems to do a good job organizing his defense to make sure he gets a good look at opposing strikes, allowing himself the most possible time to react.

He’s extremely comfortable coming off his line (to the degree that you might describe his style as “daring” or “risky”). That even manifests itself on penalty kicks – he saves a lot of them – where he moves forward to cut down angles. He tends to leave his line early on PKs too, but if you get away with it, too bad for the opposition. On breakaways, he likes to come out, but can settle back between his posts if that’s what he feels he needs to do in order to give himself the best chance at a save. He’s very willing to step up and deal with crosses, as well.

He has a reasonably big leg to distribute long (the sort of style Nashville SC will maintain through the USL days, most likely, even if the long-term future is more possession-based when the transition to MLS is made). His composure on the ball when leaving his box on attempted long service in behind his defense – or when the ball is played back by a teammate – is good, but could use a bit of work.

The main drawback to his game from my perspective is that he doesn’t handle the ball well. You can’t expect a keeper to reel in the ball on every save, but basically all of his stops are punches, and not enough of them clear the box or get out of bounds: he’s leaving a lot of rebounds available for either his defenders to deal with or the opponent to get a second chance. Fortunately, that’s the sort of thing that is among the most coachable, and at the very least he can learn to place them in less dangerous positions, if not corral them.

All-in-all, he’s a good third keeper prospect, and one who will benefit from the coaching and observing he’ll have available on a team with an MLS vet like Matt Pickens on the roster (and the coaching staff). There are a couple areas of his game that can take big steps forward with more reps at a high level and some coaching points. There are others (size, reaction time) that are potentially limiting in the long-term.

Nashville SC signs Malcolm Stewart, Danny Vitiello

From Club release:

NASHVILLE (January 8, 2018) – Nashville Soccer Club has added depth at two key defensive positions as it signed defender Malcolm Stewart and keeper Danny Vitiello to the 2019 squad, pending league and federation approval.

While born in the United States, Stewart, 22, qualifies as a Jamaican international and was a member of Jamaica’s U-17 World Cup qualifying squad in 2013, U-20 squad in 2015 and U-23 squad in 2017. Stewart attended UNC Charlotte and was a pivotal part of the 49ers backline that recorded eight shutouts and allowed only 15 goals in 20 games en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015. Since college, Stewart has played for the Ocean City Nor’easters of USL League Two and last season trained with LA Galaxy II of the USL Championship.

“Malcom is a terrific prospect and has many qualities that are needed in the modern game,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “He has tremendous pace, good physical stature and is hungry to achieve.”

Vitiello, 22, recently finished a standout career in net at the University of Albany, making 60 starts over his four-year career. He recorded 24 shutouts, including 10 in 15 starts as redshirt junior. That season, Vitiello led Albany to the NCAA Tournament and recorded a shutout victory over Maryland in the first round. In his collegiate career, Vitiello allowed just 1.02 goals per game and had a save percentage of .724. Vitiello started for USL League Two side Long Island Rough Riders in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, as the team advanced to the second-round.

“Danny impressed whilst trialing during the summer and then reinforced his credentials in our invite only tryouts in December,” said Smith. “He fits the criteria for our club perfectly both physically & technically, whilst showing all the desire you would expect from a young player.”

These signings fit in line with my recent prediction that the majority of signings going forward prior to the 2019 season will be depth-type players, rather than established stars (with the opportunity for another star or two, particularly a midfielder, to end up with the team).

I’ll have more on both of these players in the coming days. See these and all other offseason moves on the Offseason Tracker.

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.

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)

 

Profile: Cameron Lancaster

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Courtesy Louisville City FC

Nashville SC has added its biggest offseason signing yet. Louisville City’s Cameron Lancaster will move from Purple to Gold for the 2019 season.

“Who is Cameron Lancaster?” you find yourself asking. “Well,” I respond, “he’s only the USL’s single-season record-holder for goals scored, and he did that just last year! I’m surprised you hadn’t heard of him before!”

Lancaster was the Golden Boot winner (obviously, given the above) this season – for those keeping score, that means Nashville SC has brought in the No. 1 and No. 2 (Ríos was tied with Orange County’s Thomas Enevoldsen) scorers in the league last year – with his 26 goals. He netted them in multiple ways, with 17 coming from the right foot, six from the left foot, and three off his head. It took him 110 total shots (65 of those on-frame) to get there, a conversion rate of 24%. Only Brandon Allen – who took three penalties to help get to his conversion rate of 30% – was in that range for Nashville last year.

Given that Lancaster put those scoring numbers together in 2,179 minutes across 33 games (66 minutes per game), that equates to more than a goal for every 90 played. I believe that to be prolific. He really is primarily a finisher, with just two assists and 23 total key passes (passes leading to a shot, even if it doesn’t go in) across the entire season.

He was a 74.1% passer, completed one of seven attempted crosses – Louisville City did a few different things schematically this year, and most commonly used a 3-4-3, in which Lancaster was typically the center forward but sometimes pushed out wide –

For his efforts, Lancaster was first-team All-USL, and he joins Ríos in coming to Nashville after earning such a distinction. Right-sided defender Darnell King was second-team all-league, and centerback Ken Tribbett only missed out on those lists because he missed 13 games due to injury. If you’re looking for the next players Nashville SC will target, you might want to keep an eye on the league honors and figure out who isn’t currently signed (of course, I’ll actually do that for you: Enevoldsen and Louisville City defender Paco Craig are the only unsigned first-teamers at this point, Swope Park forward Hadji Barry is the only second-teamer – which means everybody who didn’t sign with the team they played for in 2018 either is headed to Nashville or went to Canada to help launch a Canadian Premier League team (NCFC’s Kyle Bekker)).

Let’s go to the film… Here’s his scoring reel through most of the regular-season games this season:

 

He does the fox-in-the-box stuff no doubt, but a lot of his scoring comes from excellent placement (including on four direct free kicks), audacious attempts (check the goal at 1:15), and a willingness to just put the ball on frame and see what happens. For all Nashville SC’s low conversion rate last year, not enough of that last one happened, and a team that was less afraid of failure might have knocked home a few more.

The 26-year old Lancaster has spent all four of his years in the United States with Louisville City, and while none of the previous seasons were record-setters in the way 2018 was, they were also productive: he scored eight goals and meted out one assist for the USL Champions in 2017 as the second-leading scorer (in about half the minutes of leader Luke Spencer), and scored four goals in 1,086 minutes 2016. He made just one appearance for LCFC in 2015 because he began his American career with quite a bit of bad luck, which actually followed him a bit from his time in Tottenham’s academy in his native London:

Could you talk me through your career after you left Spurs?

Cameron: After my debut I got injured pretty badly and was out for a year and after coming back from that I had 6 months playing and did my ACL. My contract was coming to an end so we mutually agreed to call it a day. I went to stevenage for about 2 months and then had an opertunity to get to America so I took it. Unfortunately I did my other ACL 2 weeks after signing for Louisville City but I’m all good now and we won the league last season.

He’s been healthy ever since fully returning from that second tear, so I wouldn’t consider him injury-prone at this point. Fortunately, NSC is beginning to build the depth – returning strikers Tucker Hume and Ropapa Mensah, plus MLS signing Daniel Ríos and winger Kharlton Belmar – that he doesn’t need to be an every-minute guy and risk re-injury. You also know he’s going to be very productive when he is in the game.

At 6-0, 163 pounds – or “exactly the same size as me,” the voices in my head chime in yet again – he’s not a physically dominant player, but you can tell from his productivity (18 of his goals came from inside the box this year, including the three headers) that he’s more than strong enough to mix it up with the big boys. He doesn’t have a great duel success rate (39.7%, 28.7% on aerials), so he’s certainly not your hold-up guy.

Having just turned 26 a couple days before helping LCFC hoist the USL Championship trophy for the second straight year, he’s got several good years left, as well. This is a guy who can play, and can dominate this level… probably in a situation similar to Ríos where the plan is to take him to MLS and we can assume a multi-year contract (hey I’m writing this a day early, give me a break if it’s in the release).