Prior to their inaugural season in MLS, Nashville SC spent two years in the USL Championship. As they are today, the team was led with Mike Jacobs as general manager and Gary Smith as head coach.
This offseason reminds Jacobs a bit of their time between USL campaigns.
In their first USL season, Nashville impressed and made the playoffs, doing so reliant on a strong defensive unit. Sound familiar? They scored the fewest goals of all 16 playoff teams in the league, with 42 in 34 games. The next year, though, they finished second in the Eastern Conference of the USL Championship with the best goal difference and the third-most goals in the East.
That's the kind of jump they are optimistic for as they attempt to follow up a hugely encouraging first MLS campaign, in which they set defensive records for expansion clubs before them.
"It's similar to what I promised to Gary from year one to year two in USL: Our goal was we’d never be in a situation where we struggled to score goals again," Smith told media on a virtual press conference Monday. "We were cautious in year one with our roster build, but I feel good about heading into year two of this project that we have the personnel to not only create, but finish scoring chances."
While Nashville's attack got off to a slow start in MLS, as the defensive unit carried them to points, goals picked up as the season went along.
The team acquired winger Alex Muyl from the New York Red Bulls, Handwalla Bwana from the Seattle Sounders and used their final Designated Player spot on center forward Jhonder Cadiz. Muyl had an instant impact, acquired in August, though Cadiz didn't debut until October 14 and didn't start a regular season game as he worked to full fitness. Bwana didn't make a start, either.
Designated Player Jhonder Cadiz (above) will be key in helping Nashville SC's attack take a leap in their second MLS season | USA Today Sports
From when Cadiz debuted, though, Nashville were eighth in MLS in goals per game. Smith wasn't able to select DPs Cadiz, Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal to the same starting XI until the playoffs, where they beat Inter Miami 3-0 then upset Toronto FC before falling to eventual champion Columbus Crew SC in the conference semifinals.
“My expectation is we’re going to create chances this year at no worse than we created in the last month of last season, which was really encouraging," Jacobs said. "It’s not like it’s my opinion, it’s a fact: We scored significantly more goals in that last month of the season. Our expectation is to maintain those standards with more players in the fray who can help create and score chances.”
In addition to Cadiz, Bwana and Muyl entering their first preseason with Nashville, the club added a few more attackers in veteran forward CJ Sapong and Uruguayan youth international winger Rodrigo Pineiro.
“Rodrigo has a very strong pedigree," Jacobs said. "When you look at his experiences coming through Penarol’s academy, then the opportunities in meaningful matches in the first division with Danubio and looking at his youth international experience, we just thought he had the background and pedigree to translate into our league. He offers things we definitely needed.”
Smith has plenty of options in attack, with Daniel Rios, Dom Badji and Abu Danladi further options past those previously mentioned. The roster could grow further before the club's first game, too, with Jacobs noting the possibility to sign more players either during preseason or waiting for the summer.
Nashville reported for preseason on Monday, with the regular season set to kick off on April 17. The Primary Transfer Window closes on June 1.
“We have worked very hard in maintaining roster flexibility," Jacobs said. "Having open roster spots, having enough allocation money to put us in position that, depending what Gary’s needs are in preseason, whether it’s immediate or the summer window, we’ll have flexibility to add players. I like to use this time of the year for evaluating, taking inventory of what you have and don’t have.”