Once again, Nashville SC will have a new conference in 2023. Their goals remain the same.
Nashville are back in the East after a one-year sojourn in the West. They made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs yet again, just the fourth (of 19) expansion teams to accomplish the feat of making the playoffs in each of their first three seasons.
Back in the East, the plan is to challenge toward the top of the conference and fight in all competitions. Nashville believe in where their roster stands as preseason begins and aren’t likely to be too active on the transfer market as they prepare for opening day.
“We’re always evaluating our group,” general manager Mike Jacobs told MLSsoccer.com. “This is a group that has been very successful over the last three years and is built to be very competitive in the Eastern Conference. It’s a veteran group, one that’s very deep.”
With players reporting for preseason camp this weekend, Nashville’s core remains centered around Designated Players Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman. Mukhtar won the Landon Donovan MLS MVP and Golden Boot presented by Audi awards last year, while Zimmerman represented the US at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
They generally have their key offseason business behind them, adding winger Fafa Picault from Houston and making winger Jacob Shaffelburg’s loan from Toronto FC a permanent transfer earlier this winter. This week, stalwart center back Dave Romney was traded to New England and forward Aké Loba was loaned to Liga MX’s Mazatlán FC.
Let’s start with Loba. The club-record signing never quite broke into head coach Gary Smith’s rotation, making just two starts in MLS over a season-and-a-half. He returns to Liga MX, where he had success previously with Querétaro FC and CF Monterrey.
Since the move is a loan, Nashville can’t add another Designated Player – Loba still technically occupies that spot. Inter Miami CF encountered the same hurdle in 2022 when they loaned Rodolfo Pizarro to Monterrey and he still took up a DP spot.
If/when Loba is transferred permanently, Nashville will open a DP spot. Mazatlan have a purchase option they can trigger at any time this year. Another clause includes Nashville being able to negotiate with other clubs about a permanent deal for Loba, but if a fee is agreed upon, Mazatlan can match the fee and sign him. So, there's potential for Nashville to open a DP spot during the season.
“I have a lot of confidence and belief in Aké’s ability to score goals in Liga MX,” Jacobs said. “There’s a lot of variables in international recruitment. That’s not an excuse. Players adapt differently to new leagues, climates, cultures, teams. It was hard for him to adapt to our team other than in the role occupied by the league’s MVP.”
“The best role for [Loba] is the one Hany plays,” Jacobs said. “Trying to accommodate him in a different role, particularly with the money we’re spending, it didn’t fit. I do believe Aké has the ability to score goals in our league, but if he’s not going to feature regularly, we have to get him games.”
Romney makes way for Maher
While most assumed Loba would be on the way out this winter, Romney’s trade was a bit more of a surprise.
Romney was a constant for the group, starting 87 of a possible 91 regular-season matches with Nashville over three seasons. The center back was entering the final year of his contract and is likely to sign a new, long-term deal in New England.
“Dave was an important part of not only our roster build, but the narrative we created in trying to identify undervalued players and give them an opportunity,” Jacobs said. “It was a successful relationship for both. We gave Dave this platform that he was looking for and felt he deserved, and did a really good job for our club.”
Romney was acquired from the LA Galaxy for $225,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM) ahead of the 2020 season and traded to the Revs for $525,000 in GAM this week.
The move opens up a bigger opportunity for rising center back Jack Maher.
Maher, 23, was selected No. 2 overall in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft by the Coyotes and has earned regular playing time over the last two years, making at least 18 starts in each of the last two seasons. Now, he’s expected to be the center back partner alongside Zimmerman, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year who’s like a big brother to Maher on and off the field.
“Each year, we’ve all seen Jack’s performances grow with his age and experience,” Jacobs said. “He’s earned the opportunity to have a larger role. We think he forms a really unique partnership with Walker, and between the other center backs we have, complete a pretty good center back group.”
Trust in the core
With Mukhtar and Zimmerman still leading the way, and key players like Dax McCarty, Sean Davis, Aníbal Godoy and Daniel Lovitz back as well, Nashville are bullish on the roster as is heading into 2023.
The club retain flexibility moving forward, though.
“The group, as constructed, we believe is built to be very competitive,” Jacobs said. “Our current DP situation and roster gives us flexibility to make further additions in the summer.”