Project 2019: Identifying and addressing last year’s weaknesses

Nashville SC had, by all indications, a solid debut season. Could it have been better? Sure. The team was as high as second in the Eastern Conference in the USL Power Ratings (whether a simple projected final table based on games played, or on strength of results), but finished eighth. They also had a fallow period in the middle of the season with just 14 points in 14 games, seeing them slip from lofty positions both in the ratings and the table proper.

Want to have a better season? There are generally three ways: 1) look at what you did well, and do it even better, 2) identify aspects that you didn’t even consider last year, or 3) look at what you did poorly, and improve it.

Let’s take a look at the third one, with a focus on a few specific categories.

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This team didn’t finish well.

The Problem: Nashville SC was 13th of 16 Eastern Conference teams in conversion rate (goals per shot), due to multiple factors. Simple shooting or finishing ability is probably the most obvious one to address. By putting 12.40% of shots in the back of the net, they were in the same stratosphere as Penn FC and Atlanta United 2, rather than regular-season champion Cincinnati and USL Cup champion Louisville City.

The Solution: Add firepower.

Nashville added the league’s single-season record-holder for goals, Cameron Lancaster, signing him away from Louisville. He banged home 26 scores with a very impressive 23.64% conversion rate. If you put him in position to get a shot off, he’s nearly twice as likely to finish it as Nashville was last year.

That wasn’t enough, though. The team also added the second-leading scorer from last year’s league, Daniel Ríos. On loan to North Carolina FC, he scored 20 times on a 32.79% conversion rate (nearly three times Nashville SC’s average last year!). Now he’s been signed by Nashville’s MLS outfit with a season-long loan to NSC in the cards.

Fixed?: Assume that, instead of 12.40%-caliber finishing, 171 of Nashville’s 434 shots had been taken by a combination of Lancaster and Ríos (without even assuming that their movement would allow them to find even more shots). Their combined conversion rate of 26.90% would be pretty welcome there – 46 scores between them is more than Nashville’s entire team scored last year.

The defense couldn’t cope with a key injury

The Problem: Bradley Bourgeois dealt with a nagging hamstring injury during the year. His time being completely out of the lineup or limited from late June to early August was in the midst of NSC’s fallow period. A combination of London Woodberry and Ryan James couldn’t provide the same caliber of play, and Nashville suffered two of its worst defensive performances (giving up three goals to Ottawa Fury and Toronto FC II) with Bourgeois hampered and out completely, respectively.

The Solution: Add one all-USL defender and another who would have been if not for minor injury problems of his own.

Darnell King was second-team all-league last year for San Antonio FC (despite a poor year for the team on the whole), and can play as a right fullback or, like Bourgeois, a slightly undersized centerback. While he’ll mostly play the former, like both Woodberry and James, he can fill in at the latter. His presence has to be considered an upgrade.

Better yet, Penn FC’s Ken Tribbett is known for his set-piece scoring and ability to get forward, but he’s also a defensive stalwart. He was on-pace for a first-team All-USL honor last year, but missing 13 games over the course of the season saw him fall by the wayside in the eyes of the voters, to some extent. While you can’t count on him to be fully healthy all year – at least until proven otherwise – he can start when healthy and provide an option off the bench when not at 100%.

NSC has also added centerback/fullback Malcolm Stewart, and while he’s probably deeper a type of depth (he hasn’t played a competitive game in a couple years), he is an athletic, technical piece who can grow into the game.

Fixed?: Nashville SC may regret only signing David Edgar to a short-term deal last year, because the Premier League and MLS veteran played well when he was available, and after his departure, Bourgeois’s injury couldn’t be handled with the same caliber of player. Now, though, the likes of Tribbett is a younger piece, and the overall depth can be considered an upgrade. This only takes a very good defense a little ways higher, but there was only so much upside to add here, and NSC has done a very nice job of finding a piece to fill in.

However, if they go to primarily a three-man backline this year – as seemed to be the preference at the beginning of the year, and then when the rubber hit the road in the playoffs – there’s not yet a lot of injury cover aside from shifting players in from other positions.

Matt Pickens’s form faded mid-season

The Problem: This one is going to be a little bit more anecdotal, because the data show that, while he did swoon a bit after mid-June or so, it wasn’t a huge difference from earlier in the season (albeit against mostly easier competition in the second half), and of course he remained among the league’s best front-to-back:

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Over the course of the season, with a significant dip at the end.

The anecdotal evidence is, while slightly subject to our minds deceiving us, a little more significant. He wasn’t giving up a goal like this at the beginning of the year:

Nor would you have expected him to concede a penalty like against Tampa Bay, clear into an opponent for what was basically an own goal against Charleston, or give up a soft late equalizer against an impotent Toronto FC II.

It’s worth reiterating that he was among the USL’s best, no matter what (and was probably unfairly robbed of all-league honors). The issue to solve is probably more about keeping him fresh for the stretch run of the year. After all, he’s going to be 37 years old for the majority of the season.

He had a player who appeared to be a solid backup in CJ Cochran, but the youngster couldn’t get on the field in regular-season action except when Pickens took a bit of personal leave (his wife gave birth to a child) and also missed a contest with a wrenched back. He went on a loan stretch mid-season to Fresno FC, which has signed him.

The Solution: Nashville SC has signed Connor Sparrow, recently of both Real Salt Lake and their reserve team in the USL (Real Monarchs). You can read Sparrow’s accolades here. Former University at Albany keeper Danny Vitiello has also signed, though he, like Micah Bledsoe last year, appears to be pure depth, unlikely to see competitive action.

For the solution here to work out, there has to be another component at play: Sparrow has to take some minutes away from Pickens, giving the veteran a bit of rest (which means he’s better than Cochran or at least a little more trusted by the technical staff).

Fixed?: This one can only get an incomplete. We don’t have the body of evidence on Sparrow to know for sure whether he can compete at a higher level in the USL than Cochran, nor do we have a guarantee that he’ll get a little more time, keeping Pickens fresh late in the year (or possibly beating him for some minutes straight-up). It seemed the hope last was that Pickens would coach up the backups to take a little of the playing responsibility off the plate of his player-coach title, but it didn’t happen. With another year on his tires, you’d hope Sparrow can take to Pickens’s tutelage.

Playing down

The Problem: Nashville SC was pretty fantastic against the best teams in the Eastern Conference last year. In 16 games against fellow playoff teams, they averaged 1.125 points per game, and were the only team not to lose to FC Cincinnati. In 18 games against teams that missed the playoffs, they averaged 1.667 points per game. That may look quite a bit better, but you’d hope for the difference to be even greater.

Let’s put it another way: Nashville SC swept only two teams all year, and rightfully two of the bottom three teams in the East (Atlanta United 2 – against whom they played three games – and Richmond). They were swept by only one team, and while Indy Eleven was in the playoffs, they were the No. 7 seed, not one of the top couple. The only three teams against whom Nashville SC averaged less than a point per game (averaging a draw) were that Indy side and two teams – Tampa Bay Rowdies and TFCII – that didn’t even sniff the playoffs.

That mid-season swoon makes it hard to decide if the team played down to competition, or simply faded in form over the course of the year: with many of Nashville’s tougher games front-loaded on the schedule, it could be either.

The Solution: It’s tough to evaluate exactly what Nashville SC has done to address this specific issue. If it is indeed the legs giving out mid-season, improving depth would be one route to improving upon it, and the team has certainly done that (at least near the top of the roster – signings of bench-type players are still to come). Perhaps adding a bit more in the midfield would be important to solidify what they’ve already added.

If it’s truly a matter of having played down to teams, what is the solution? There’s no way to evaluate why that would be. Maybe they weren’t taking opponents seriously, maybe they got some folks’ best shot when they weren’t expecting it, there was certainly some bad luck in some instances (a travel fiasco for the road game against Toronto comes to mind), etc. etc.

Fixed?: Without being able to put a finger on the underlying cause, there’s no choice but to call this incomplete. One potential cause – quality depth – has been addressed, but others will have to be evaluated when the season rolls around.

Lack of chemistry

The Problem: Some of Nashville’s goal-scoring issues last year (see above) were attributed – by both players and head coach Gary Smith – as being a result of the team needing time to get to know one another. Off the pitch but far more importantly on it, knowing what a teammate is going to do when presented with a given look by the opponent, or a situation with the ball at his feet, or the opportunity to make a run… Nashville SC had just a few weeks to try to build that, and you may fairly say it didn’t really come together in time for the season to turn out the way many wanted.

You could also say that some personnel shifts during the year (Michael Cox and David Edgar departing mid-season, Brandon Allen and Kris Tyrpak among those who signed well after the year had begun) played a role in that, though you can hardly blame the technical staff for wanting to mold the roster to the best possible group. Formation shifts during the year (starting in a 5-3-2, going to both a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1, ending in a 4-3-3, moving back to a 5-3-2 for the playoffs) probably also played a role – as did the impact that had on settling a starting lineup.

All told, though, there were certainly times where the team didn’t quite seem to sync.

The Solution: Continuity is key here. It does appear the team will still be tactically flexible (one of the biggest offseason signings, Kharlton Belmar, is a pure offensive winger, while the coaches molded returning player Ropapa Mensah into one toward the end of last season). I don’t expect the same formation or even philosophy in every single game. However, many of the established principles within those multiple philosophies will remain the same.

The team also brought back 14 players from last year’s team, including the top 12 in minutes played (striker Tucker Hume and box-to-box midfielder Ramone Howell were Nos. 14 and 23 in minutes last year). That’s some serious continuity between the teammates, and some chemistry both on and off the pitch. Too often, it seemed like that extra pass was taken when the intended recipient expected a pass, or vice versa when a run was wasted. Now that the players know each other, there should be less of that unfamiliarity harming the team.

Augmenting a well-established core with some top talent around them was probably just the offseason recipe needed.

Fixed?: It’d be unfair to say the only problems with chemistry were a lack of familiarity: there’s a chance some players didn’t quite fit into roles they were given at times, or couldn’t execute a certain pass that would have worked perfectly within the system, etc. However, there’s not a whole lot else the staff could have done than keep that continuity going to help.

This aspect can only be evaluated when we see the product on the field, but I’d expect it to be much improved in 2019.

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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.

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: Building a depth chart for Project 2019

The next phase in Project 2019.

We officially know who is staying and who is going for Nashville SC, We also know three of the signings to join the team for 2019. What gaps still remain?

Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens

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Who will Nashville SC find to play behind Matt Pickens? Courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Boys in Gold will need to find a true backup keeper, and a third-stringer who is comfortable getting very few minutes. The playing time demands of the No. 2 keeper could be interesting: Is Matt Pickens going to be able to play 32 games again? At 37 years old, will he continue the transition from player to coach? Cochran likely would have stayed around if the path to minutes was more clear, so we’re probably going for two guys without much expectation of seeing the field.

Centerback

Left Centerback:

Justin Davis
Liam Doyle

Middle Centerback:

Liam Doyle
Ken Tribbett

Right Centerback:

Ken Tribbett
Darnell King
Bradley Bourgeois

From my perspective, it appears that the depth here is pretty good. One more centerback who’s comfortable in any of the three positions across the back (it does seem likely that Nashville SC is planning to go back to the 5-3-2 formation for 2019), including being the man in the middle, is a likely needed addition.

Fullback/Wingback

Left fullback

Justin Davis
Taylor Washington

Right fullback

Darnell King
Kosuke Kimura

Each of these spots has a couple guys who should be ready to play, but three of the four can also slot in elsewhere (Davis and King at CB on their respective sides of the field, Washington as a wide midfielder). Another left wingback – if NSC is indeed planning to base out of the 5-3-2 – would be a nice signing, since that’s a bit of an unnatural fit for Davis.

Central midfielder

CDM

Bolu Akinyode
Matt LaGrassa
Ramone Howell

CDM 2

Michael Reed
Matt LaGrassa
Ramone Howell

This position seems to be pretty well-stocked, but could use an upgrade both for a starter and in terms of quality depth. My dream of Jeff Larentowicz fades yet again (he’s under contract with Atlanta United, though they did leave him unprotected in the MLS Expansion Draft).

CAM

Lebo Moloto
Matt LaGrassa
Alan Winn

Pending Moloto’s health entering the beginning of the season (by all accounts, he should be fully healthy, if not quite 100% fit), more depth here is needed, especially because of the personnel overlap – say Moloto’s on the right wing and Winn on the left (something we saw at times, with the first FC Cincinnati game (at Nissan Stadium) coming to mind) – suddenly LaGrassa is the only player available for the role. A more consistent creator could be an upgrade to non-Moloto options.

Wing midfielders

Left-footed wing mid (LM or inverted RM)

Taylor Washington

Right-footed wing mid (RM or inverted LM)

Alan Winn
Matt LaGrassa
Lebo Moloto

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Is Alan Winn ready to take the next steps in his professional development? Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

A quick note: Nashville didn’t always have a lefty and a right on the field at the same time: there were instances where we saw one inverted winger and the other a traditional (crossing with the dominant foot) player. So: while it looks like there is an abundance on the right and a dearth on the left, know that the footedness isn’t strictly one from the first category and one from the second. Still, more personnel here would be quite nice indeed, though if NSC goes primarily 5-3-2, the focus would be other areas of the field.

Forward

Left-footed winger

??

Right footed winger

Alan Winn
Ropapa Mensah
Lebo Moloto

Target striker

Daniel Ríos
Tucker Hume
Ropapa Mensah

Second striker 

Ropapa Mensah
Daniel Ríos
Lebo Moloto
Matt LaGrassa

Ríos immediately becomes a starter, whether that’s as a lone striker or one of two guys up top. That probably means Ropapa Mensah starts with him (or continues his growth by learning other roles on the field), and if we’re not anticipating heavy use of true wing forwards, the overlap between that position and wide midfielder probably covers everything.

What does it all mean?

That’s a lot of information, and digesting it requires a sort of abstract view of the field, because there are areas where the depth chart overlaps, and some where it doesn’t. Where does it seem like we’re looking for help? There are 17 players currently signed to the team. 23 make a game-week squad (those designated eligible to play in a given game), 18 make the game-day squad (the 11 starters and seven available to be subbed in), and the total roster is 30.

Given the above-listed depth situations, and assuming all returning players are likely members of the weekly squad, it seems Nashville’s top 23 still needs…

  • Two backup keepers
  • One-plus centerback, possibly two-plus if the three-man backline is going to be a mainstay.
  • At least one fullback, and probably one comfortable on both side of the field (or a guy comfortable on the left and one comfortable on the right)
  • A CDM only if he’s an talent upgrade from the current roster
  • A CAM if Moloto’s not 100% at the beginning of the season, and possibly an upgrade to the guys behind Moloto to compete with him either way
  • At least one left-footed wing midfielder/forward.

I project Howell top be a fringe player for the 23, so that’s seven guys in addition to the current players (the third keeper is almost always in the 23, but rarely in the gameday 18). The remaining six players for the 30-man roster would probably be depth first and foremost, with some capable of playing roles during the season. A backup CB and a number of wide players (fullbacks, midfielders, wingers) would probably be the priorities there with the middle of the pitch looking pretty solid.

The club’s offseason signings to date do appear to be a bit more ambitious than I was expecting, with Ríos, Tribbett, and King all USL-XI-caliber players (though Tribbett’s long-term injury kept him from joining Ríos on the first or King on the second). That could alter the calculus just a bit in terms of who signs – and who from the current roster gets replaced in the lineup.

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.

Building a Nashville SC roster: Players with coaching connections

The latest edition in a series of indefinite length that I’m labeling “Project 2019.” In this stop, looking for more players who could join the Boys in Gold for the final USL season before MLS arrives in Nashville. This time? Players who have past connections to the Nashville SC technical staff.

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Could some (additional) guys who helped Gary Smith earn this photo join Nashville SC this offseason. Courtesy Colorado Rapids

Players for the inaugural USL roster for Nashville SC came from a number of places. MLS squads, other USL teams, recent college grads, even overseas clubs.

Everyone knew a few key members had previous connections, especially to head coach Gary Smith: goalkeeper Matt Pickens and defender Kosuke Kimura were key members of Smith’s MLS Cup-winning 2010 Colorado Rapids. However, the connections to some of the other players were a little less obvious, but certainly extant – and connections to Technical Director (and now GM for Soccer Operations when MLS rolls around) Mike Jacobs were key, too:

  • Keeper CJ Cochran, midfielder (and captain) Michael Reed, midfielder Josh Hughes, and Kimura played on Smith’s 2015 Atlanta Silverbacks team.
  • Midfielder Robin Shroot played for Smith at Stevenage in England.
  • Midfielders Lebo Moloto and Kris Tyrpak (a mid-season signing who also played with Reed last year at San Antonio FC), and defenders Liam Doyle and Oumar Ballo (who ultimately didn’t play for the team after being unable to sort out a visa issue) came – directly or indirectly – from the Sporting Kansas City system where Jacobs had spent the previous three years.
  • Midfielder Ian McGrath played college soccer at the University of Evansville, where Jacobs had coached before joining SKC (including during McGrath’s freshman year).

There are even more subtle connections to other places – and that list isn’t intended to be exhaustive.

So, who are some players in the world of soccer nowadays who both have connections to Smith and/or Jacobs, and could also help the team? The whole set is too long, but here are some intriguing candidates:

New York City FC/Phoenix Rising defender Saad Abdul-Salaam – Abdul Salaam’s time with Sporting Kansas City directly overlaps with Jacobs’s 2015-17 tenure. He made $120k this year from New York City FC (which signed him preseason), but spent the end of the year on loan with Phoenix Rising. I don’t know how the finances work for MLS-to-USL loans, but I’d imagine Rising was not on the hook for that whole salary.

He’s a 27-year old guy from the Midwest (who may want to be a little closer to home territory), and as a 6-4 centerback update: Thanks to Ben from Speedway for pointing out that Abdul-Salaam is actually a comically large fullback, not a CB, could be a useful addition to an NSC backline that had poor depth in the middle when Bradley Bourgeois went down. Phoenix also rode its “one of the few truly good defenses in the West” status to the USL Cup runner-up spot.

Montreal Impact forward Quincy Amarikwa – Amarikwa was a 24-year old member of Smith’s MLS Cup champion Rapids, and is now a wizened vet at 31. He’s one of the more expensive names on this list (making $289k in MLS this season), but with only 10 appearances and one goal, it’s likely that both club and player are interested in moving on – the question becomes whether he’s cheap enough to truly become an option for a Nashville SC side that shouldn’t be among the cheapest in salary this year, but also still doesn’t have MLS bucks.

He’s never been the type of guy to pour in goals or bang out a ton of assists (21 and 14 total in the past six years), but some offensive punch – with MLS quality – could be something that interests Nashville SC.

Northern Virginia United defender Oumar Ballo – This one, to me, is a no-brainer if it can work out. Nashville SC initially signed him for the 2018 roster, but he had visa complications and couldn’t join the team. Instead, he spent the Summer with an NPSL side playing some amateur ball. His connections to Nashville run pretty strong (he even was with Swope in previous years, giving him some familiarity with Liam Doyle) for a guy who never suited up for the team.

A 6-2 centerback, the Malian who grew up in Baltimore could provide the depth that the spot could have used this past season. Given that he was stuck playing outside of the professional ranks this year, he’s probably available on the cheap, as well.

Swope Park/Sporting Kansas City forward Kharlton Belmar – Belmar had a tough time seeing the field for the parent club, so he spent most of 2018 down with Sporting Kansas City. Making $68,200 on an MLS contract, he’s one of the more bargain-y players on this list. Could a loan agreement from SKC to a USL team that’s likely to be one of 2019’s most ambitious in pursuit of a league championship help him take the next step in his development? Could Nashville buy him outright in hopes he’s ready to be a full-time MLS guy the following season?

He was SPR’s second-leading scorer with 10 goals on the year (in just 22 appearances), and converted on 22% of his shots, which would be among the highest on Nashville’s roster – Brandon Allen hit at a slightly higher rate, but was helped by a large proportion of his scoring coming on penalty kicks. A fringe US National Team prospect, Belmar is only 25 and could be a very intriguing piece.

Swope Park/Sporting Kansas City defender Amer Didic – Didic started his career with Swope Park Rangers, and impressed enough to be signed to the parent club during the time Jacobs was assistant technical director. However, he got zero (0) minutes for Sporting Kansas City this year, while making 27 appearances for Swope Park.

A 6-4 centerback who’s just 23 years old (he turns 24 next month), he could be on the block if he’s not in SKC’s long-term plans – they do have club options for the next several years, and at a $55,600 salary he’s not costing them a bunch to just loan down to the B-team. Still, Nashville needs depth at centerback, and could be a loan or transfer destination for a guy who may get plenty of run for a team aiming to win big in 2019.

DC United defender Kevin Ellis – Pending the exposure of Kimura as “secretly a robot who will never ever grow old” (or: Peter Pan?), there may be a need for additional right back depth on this team, possibly even a starter. Ellis is just 27, and has eight MLS seasons under his belt. The majority of that came with Sporting Kansas City – including short stints with Swop Park Rangers in 2016 and 2017 when Jacobs was their technical director as part of his ATD duties with the parent club.

Ellis got 20 games with the Chicago Fire before they waived him, and signed with DC United in September, where he got only two appearances. Making $158,000 this season, he could be available for cheaper, as it would surprise if there’s any priority in re-signing him.

Seattle Sounders 2 forward David Estrada – The Sounders’ B-side was awful this year, but it wasn’t the fault of their veteran striker: Estrada scored 11 goals on a 34% conversion rate (again: doing it for a team that couldn’t provide him a lot of help), and added 22 key passes. That’s a skillset that Nashville SC could certainly use. He also has versatility, playing as a lone or side-by-side striker, as well as a No. 10 and a right winger for S2 this year.

He played on Smith’s 2014 Atlanta Silverbacks (albeit for just a few games on loan from the Sounders’ senior side), so there’s a connection there, albeit a potentially tenuous one. A guy who’s going to be 31 when the season begins may be more interested in playing for a team that’s aiming for a championship than one that’s designed around developing for the first team, anyway.

Atlanta United defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz – Larentowicz actually featured in a version of this post last year, when I thought it was unlikely that Atlanta United would bring back a 34-year old midfielder. They did, and he played in damn near every game, so what the heck do I know.

Larentowicz made $210k this year, but presumably his contract extension for Atlanta United was for one year (albeit likely with a club option for future years). Depending on what a new manager wants, he may not be in the plans going forward. He was a key member of Smith’s Rapids teams, and if he’s not in Atlanta’s plans, it’s possible that being a key member of a USL side is more appealing than having an unknown role with a new MLS club (if the money’s right).

Toronto FC defender Drew Moor – This is a guy who’s been an every-game starter in MLS for a few years, but he’s coming off a season that he basically missed the entirety of, on account of an injury suffered in Concacaf Champions League. Despite being on a salary of $350k, there may be discounts on the way, given that a 34-year old may not be expected to bounce back from that.

Moor was a member of Smith’s teams in Colorado, including the MLS Cup champions. Though just a six-footer, he’s been a center back in recent years (you may recall his absence without knowing it, through such mechanisms as “Michael Bradley played CB for Toronto this year”), and that’s a position that Nashville can use depth… and if the price is reasonable, may be able to take a risk on a guy with MLS talent.

New England Revolution/SKC forward Krisztián Neméth – This is a bit of a reach, I’ll admit. Neméth made $1.01 million for the Revs this year, an amount that’s probably comparable to (if not greater than) the entire roster’s wages from the 2018 season. There are a couple caveats here, though: he was traded mid-season largely because he wasn’t getting time at New England (21 appearances), and going to SKC wasn’t a panacea in that regard (appearances in nine of 14 games since, 386 minutes which is less than 30% of available time).

His goals have also dried up to an extent, with only one for each of his clubs this season. He had 13 in 26 games in Qatar the previous year, and 11 in 28 with SKC in his previous stint there (which coincided with Jacobs). At just 29, is he willing to or interested in dropping a level – and making lots less money – to find his form and extend a career? NSC could certainly use a finisher.

Portland Timbers centerback Lawrence Olum – Nashville’s lack of centerback depth was exposed this year (particularly after the departure of short-term signing David Edgar). While the starters were good, when Bradley Bourgeois missed several games to injury, there was a bit of scrambling and shuffling in the back. Olum is getting old – he’ll be 35 in the middle of the 2019 North American season – but as a depth piece, he could be valuable to a USL side (and not likely to take up a spot when the Major League Soccer team arrives in 2019).

He had a long stint at Sporting Kansas City when Jacobs ending was the assistant Technical Director there, and re-signed with SKC while Jacobs was still around. He was transferred to Portland before Jacobs left, so he may not be one that’s seen as a sure-thing guy. He has gotten reasonable minutes this year (ninth on the team, which is still in the MLS Cup playoffs), but is getting old and with a $200k salary this season, may be available for cheaper than that.

Indy Eleven forward Soony Saad – Sporting Kansas City drafted Saad when Jacobs was the assistant technical director, and there’s a good relationship there. While Saad didn’t stick with SKC, he’s carved out a career as a spot player for them and with time in the USL (Swope Park Rangers, and most recently Indy Eleven). As a fellow Michigan grad, I selfishly want Nashville to sign him.

While NSC fans remember the brace he had against their side in Lucas Oil Field, he had only two more goals all regular season (and added one more in the playoffs). Converting on just 8.5% of the shots he took, that’s a high-volume shooter, which may not be the fit Nashville needs.

Non-players

A couple of former Gary Smith players from the Rapids days could be very useful additions to the club in non-playing capacities.

Pablo Mastroeni – The name should be familiar to US Men’s National Team fans: he has 65 caps, including starting in two World Cups (albeit with semi-disastrous results in the second one, with a red card against Italy in 2006). He also played 225 games for the Colorado Rapids, including captaining Smith’s 2010 championship team.

Mastroeni is now in coaching, with two and a half years as the leader of the Rapids that ended midway through last year’s campaign (his replacement, Anthony Hudson, has… not improved the club. Nor the reputation of the head coaching position therefor). He spent a week with Nashville during training this season, and while a guy with head coaching on his resume may not have “USL assistant” on his to-do list, it would be cool to find a role for him.

A guy who was born in Argentina could also help repair a reputation (whether that reputation is fair or not) of a club that doesn’t value Latino/Hispanic communities, too.

Jacob Peterson – I honestly don’t know what Peterson did this year: he collected a player salary in MLS ($174k), but after being waived by Atlanta United in preseason, he didn’t, like, play. Despite that, he’s on the executive board of the MLS Players’ association. While his playing days may be in the rearview mirror, a background with MLSPA could make him valuable to a club in a consultant role, and particularly a club that’s soon to make a transition from USL to Major League Soccer and needs personnel with institutional knowledge of the future league.

Peterson played on Gary Smith’s first Rapids team, and to add a bonus connection, he also signed with Sporting Kansas City and was still on the team during most of Jacobs’s time as the assistant technical director there. The specifics of a role for a guy like that may be murky (I’m just a dude spitballin’ on the internet, after all), but it seems like something could be worked out, given the breadth of his experience.