Nashville SC, starting with a Sunday trip to face Toronto FC (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), are entering a three-game road swing while holding onto second place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Surely that presents an opportunity to get club-record signing Ake Loba more minutes, yes?
Head coach Gary Smith didn't tip his hand, though he's clearly been impressed by the Designated Player, who joined July 7 from Liga MX side CF Monterrey. So far, the 23-year-old Ivorian forward has been limited to 31 minutes off the bench across two matches, all while the likes of Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal and CJ Sapong have fueled the Music City club's rise up the table.
"First and foremost, it's trying to get the right players on the field to do a particular job in a given moment," Smith said. "We've seen at home that trio of Hany and Randall and CJ have been very, very exciting. But we've got other players in this group and most notably, of course, the newest addition in Ake Loba.
"Ake's coming on terrifically well," Smith added. "He's looked absolutely stunning in training and it's now my job to try and get that balance right and get the right moment to integrate him in the group and with the right players around him."
Another piece to the puzzle is Venezuelan international forward Jhonder Cadiz, a DP alongside Loba and Mukhtar. It gives Smith a pleasant selection headache as he tinkers the attack that buttresses the club’s evolving three-back system.
Nashville's 24 goals scored are tied for the fifth-most in the league. Playing a home-heavy schedule so far, they've taken strides forward in the final third after being dependant on their defensive structure in 2020, when they entered MLS as an expansion club.
“I do believe we've got as good an attacking group as we've had in the 18 months that I've been here in MLS,” Smith said. “To get that right balance now, the right amount of minutes, sharp, fresh forwards, players that are looking to make a bit of a name for themselves or to get the very best out of themselves now that there's that much more competition in that frontline. Wrapped around that, of course, we've still got to make sure that we've got a good balance and a good foundation to the group.
As Loba grows into his new club, perhaps he’ll elevate Nashville SC’s high-flying offense even further. Though Toronto FC won’t make it easy and care little that Loba cost $6.8 million to acquire, a transfer fee that MLSsoccer.com’s Tom Bogert reported.
“There's a mentality and a focus that's needed, especially in a fixture [like] this one,” Smith said. “We expect to maybe forsake the ball a bit more than usual against a very capable team, but we've also got three tough games in a week. I've got to make sure that I get the right group out at the right time.”