Much of the player recruitment work for a club entering its expansion season is talking in abstract around a whiteboard. Such is the nature of building out a roster from scratch.
Nashville SC slowly transitioned that whiteboard with targets into a near full squad, spending their salary space, allocation money and roster designations deliberately as the playing roster meticulously came together over the months and months leading up to their memorable debut match in MLS in front of nearly 60,000 at Nissan Stadium on March 1.
That squad, with its core built around the likes of Dax McCarty, Walker Zimmerman, Hany Mukhtar, Anibal Godoy and others, has impressed defensively and just became more complete in attack. Nashville used their final vacant Designated Player spot this week to acquire Venezuelan international forward Jhonder Cadiz from SL Benfica, on loan with an option to buy over the next year. The move comes with great intrigue, but for the technical staff at the club, it's the culmination of a long process.
At its simplest form, adding a key striker after months and months of scouting, identifying, negotiating for and eliminating others targets, is thrilling.
“We’re really excited to add Jhonder, we think he fits perfectly in what we were looking for," GM Mike Jacobs told media on a virtual press conference. "It feels a little bit like Christmas morning: You wake up, run down the steps and see what’s under the Christmas tree. To have our present be Jhonder, we’re really excited about that.”
Cadiz, a 25-year-old Venezuelan international, spent 2019-20 on loan with Ligue 1 club Dijon, where he had two goals and two assists over 791 minutes on the pitch. He was technically a Benfica player, though had yet to make a first team appearance with the club and instead spent two years out on loan.
While Nashville were content to be patient and await the right player, rather than settling just for the sake of signing a DP, they were in a position financially to make a deal if one of their top targets became available.
"When the opportunity that a player who clearly became our top choice became available now (we had to do it,)" Jacobs said. "We could only have gotten Jhonder if we did this deal now... If we had waited until December or January, a player of Jhonder’s ability wouldn’t have been available. They weren’t going to wait around for us.”
The financial structure of the deal itself made it more of a no-brainer for the front office.
“When you think about mitigating risk, being able to acquire a player on a one-year loan first, gives us the chance to assess his talents and allow Gary and the staff to work with him for a year before signing him long-term," Jacobs said.
Now that Cadiz is officially a Nashville player, the club are bullish on their goal-scoring prospects as a whole. Their defensive unit has come together abnormally quickly for an expansion side — Nashville are among the league leaders in goals conceded (nine, third-best in MLS) and expected goals against (11.09, third-best in MLS) — but their attack is lagging behind.
They have scored the fewest goals across the league, though are just below average in chances created.
“Competition gets the best out of players," head coach Gary Smith said. "It’s easy for everyone to see we’ve fallen short in front of goal, we’ve created chances but we’ve found it difficult to convert. Bringing in a player of Jhonder’s ability adds to the expectation of scoring goals.”
Cadiz is a physical presence at 6-foot-3, but still has the pace and agility to regularly threaten teams in behind. Below is one of Cadiz's goals for Dijon, against Champions League finalists PSG.
“If you asked Gary if you’d want someone who is tall and good in the air, or really fast, he’d probably say ‘yes.’ He wants all of that," Jacobs said. "To have someone like Jhonder who is strong and good in the air, but also has breakneck pace to get in behind, it really is the best of both worlds in what we were looking for. Very rarely do you find players like that who are attainable and in their prime.”
Nashville have high hopes for Cadiz, but cautioned that it's not easy for players to immediately adjust to MLS and their new surroundings. The club didn't provide a specific timeline for when he'll be in full team training or when he might make his debut, either.
“This is a process that takes some time, it’s not a decision made overnight or we jumped on quickly," Smith said. "We’ve seen an awful lot of footage of this player, we spoke with this player, we looked into the background of this player. He ticks a lot of boxes. He’s an athletic player, he’s technically gifted. We believe he’s at a point where he has a tremendous amount to prove. We have a wonderful opportunity with a top-class striker.”