An MLS Cup champion has been crowned, the 2021 season is officially over and focus shifts to 2022 for all 28 (!) clubs as Charlotte FC also enters MLS.
Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
Nashville SC picked up right where they left off from their expansion season during year two, ascending up to third place in the Eastern Conference.
Walker Zimmerman won Defensive Player of the Year (again) and, while not quite as formidable as 2020, the defense was still pretty damn great. Meanwhile, the attack improved, in large part thanks to Hany Mukhtar ascending to bonafide MLS star as Nashville went from solid playoff team to fighting for the No. 2 seed. They lost just four times (!), but were weighed down by drawing more than half their games.
The Boys in Gold beat Orlando City in Round One at home but fell to the Philadelphia Union after penalty kicks in the Conference Semifinal. Still, of the 18 expansion clubs in MLS history, Nashville are only one of five to make the playoffs in each of their first two seasons (Chicago Fire FC 1998-99, Seattle Sounders 2009-10, Atlanta 2017-18, LAFC 2018-19).
What will year three bring?
Not to be overly simplistic or intimate that this is a one-man job, but the idea behind signing a forward for $7 million is to score more goals and thus pick up more points.
Ake Loba, 23, was acquired by Nashville in the summer from Liga MX's CF Monterrey but only made two starts with the team locked in for the stretch run. Not to lean on the like a new signing trope, but Nashville challenged for second place in the Eastern Conference pretty much without their club-record signing. Loba would not have been available if they waited until the winter, so the deal had to happen in the summer.
What can he add to the attack? Will he earn head coach Gary Smith's trust?
Loba was on Nashville's radar long before their expansion season, but his form earned a move to CF Monterrey. Coaching changes and competition limited his playing time, he became available and NSC sealed the deal. In 55 Liga MX apps (35 starts), Loba had 15 goals and two assists. Those numbers typically translate well to MLS.
Nashville tied 18 of their 34 regular-season games (!) and one of their two playoff games. Part of the calculus in all the draws came from a wonky schedule, one that was home-heavy to start and back-loaded with away fixtures. That didn't help, but moving to the Western Conference in 2022 – with the extra travel that'll place on a team from the Southeast – is another complication to account for.
If the Loba signing hits, Nashville's ceiling is raised.
In unsurprisingly declining the purchase option for forward Jhonder Cadiz, Nashville have a third DP spot open alongside Loba and Mukhtar.
They're currently using just one U22 Initiative spot, in Uruguay youth international Rodrigo Pineiro, so they could use their final DP spot freely. Or, if they want to keep open two more U22 Initiative slots, they would have to sign a young DP for that third DP spot.
Nashville have areas they'd like to improve, like everyone else, but there's no obvious hole for the club to focus that resource on. For now, it's looking like wait-and-see.
Nashville were deliberate in keeping a third DP spot open during their expansion season, before adding Cadiz on loan from Benfica in the summer. They entered 2021 with one open, before adding Loba in the summer. There's no rush.
MLS teams rarely use DP spots in defense, plus their back three of Dave Romney-Zimmerman-Jack Maher was one of the top defensive units in the league last year. Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy are an established, strong pair in central midfield, even if McCarty turns 35 in April.
The roster is in a good spot. Maybe one of the higher-earning players will take up that DP spot as a placeholder to open up a little more cap space/allocation money?
In the summer, as Nashville were without several key players, Smith shrewdly shifted to a 3-4-1-2 system that maintained defensive solidity with Zimmerman, Alistair Johnston and Godoy all at the Concacaf Gold Cup. It worked wonders, particularly for Mukhtar, who took off as an MVP candidate.
It shouldn't have come as a big surprise, even though Nashville lined up almost exclusively in a 4-2-3-1 during their expansion season. Smith often used a three-at-the-back system in USL with Nashville and briefly in 2020 as well. Plus, in modern soccer, having multiple looks is integral. Nashville were firmly part of a trend across the league: MLS teams defended out of a 5-3-2/5-2-3 formation 8.6% of the time in 2020. In 2021, it was up to 26.3%.
One would imagine the 3-4-1-2 is their preferred formation in 2022, but how much of the time? The roster still has the tools for 4-2-3-1 and the formational shift hurt the opportunities for Handwalla Bwana and Pineiro, who wasn't even making the bench by the end of the season. Randall Leal is a natural winger who adapted and thrived as an unconventional attacking midfielder in the 3-4-1-2. Loba spent time on the wing in Liga MX as well.
Plus, now the attack is just as filled.
CJ Sapong had 12 goals last year and formed a great partnership with Mukhtar, who, again, was an MVP candidate playing as a second forward. Club-record signing Loba will get a full season and is expected to play much more regularly. Daniel Rios still has a decent goals-per-minutes (5g/1,066 mins) ratio for someone who may now be third or fourth string, while veteran Teal Bunbury and Ethan Zubak have already been added this offseason via trades.
In simplistic terms: the 4-2-3-1 has one more attacking spot than the 3-4-1-2. That can help spread minutes around. But if it isn't effective, it'll be shelved.
- Will Bwana or Alex Muyl get minutes at wingback this year? That's something to watch in preseason.
- Looks like the club could use another rotation-caliber player in central midfield to spell McCarty and Godoy, alongside Brian Anunga.
- How will that forward depth chart shape up as the season gets underway?