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The Nashville Preview

One of the things I've had to get used to as I've started following MLS is the idea of conferences. Sure, as an American who has watched a lot of sports over the years, I'm very familiar with the idea. However, as an American who has binged soccer in the form of EPL and Serie A (at least when Roma still had Totti and De Rossi), this idea of conferences feels...strange.


The idea of soccer without relegation is something that rubs me the wrong way. I am fully aware of the financial reasons why it will never happen in MLS, but I can't help but wish it would. Of course, if relegation were in the U.S., Charlotte would be playing way down and it'd be years before they'd see top-flight soccer.


As someone who has not followed the league very closely until this year, I have been wondering if the conferences shake out in similar ways to American football, namely, does one conference tend to be stronger than the other? These things are cyclical, however. It always feels that in the NFL, one of the AFC or NFC is the stronger conference. Does the same apply to MLS? Here's how the Eastern and Western Conferences shake out over the past 5 years on a points-per-game (PPG) basis:

Year

Eastern

Western

Best team(s) Eastern Conference [Best team(s) Western Conference]

Worst team(s) Eastern Conference [Worst team(s) Western Conference]

2022

1.34

1.41

NYCFC, 1.71 [LAFC, 2.00]

Chicago, 0.94 [Sporting KC, 0.84]

2021

1.36

1.37

New England, 2.15 [Colorado, 1.79]

FC Cincinnati, 0.59 [Houston, 0.88]

2020

1.37

1.41

Philadelphia, 2.04 [Sporting KC, 1.86]

FC Cincinnati, 0.70 [Houston, 0.91]

2019

1.35

1.42

NYCFC, 1.88 [LAFC, 2.12]

FC Cincinnati, 0.71 [Vancouver, 1.00]

2018

1.42

1.37

RBNY, 2.09 [Sporting KC, 1.82]

Orlando City, 0.82 [San Jose, 0.62]

A few things to note about this:

  1. Over the past 5 years, Eastern Conference teams average 1.37 PPG while Western Conference teams average 1.40 PPG.

  2. With the exception of 2018, and over the past 4 years, the Eastern Conference's best average PPG is the Western Conference's worst.

  3. It's lucky for Cincinnati and Houston that relegation isn't a thing, as they both would've been relegated multiple times over the past few years.

  4. The Eastern Conference's "best" team (on a PPG basis) is consistently ahead of the Western Conference's "best" team. The exception is 2019 with LAFC and this year (so far) with LAFC. It should also be noted that while NYFC currently has the best PPG in the East, they've only played 17 games, compared with the second-place team (RBNY) who have played 19.

What this tells us is that there is a difference between these conferences, namely, the West is more difficult. Yes, individual teams in the East might do better than teams in the West, but that furthers the argument for the West being better; the best teams in the East beat up the weaker competition.


This is good news for Charlotte and its chances of making the playoffs. The gap is growing wider between Charlotte and the top teams in the East and they still lag behind on a PPG basis with the teams they'll be competing against for that final playoff spot, but the gap isn't insurmountable. The progress this team has shown under Lattanzio, especially on the road, will be key. Pulling out more points on the road has to happen as well as winning at home. The fact that we've beaten a team like RBNY at home plus gotten a road win should give confidence moving forward.

 

Team

Possession

Shots per game

Shots on target per game

Goals for (xG)

Goals against (xGA)

Points (standing)

WhoScored team rating (SofaScore team rating)

Charlotte FC

53.3%

11.37

4.05

19 (22.2)

23 (23.1)

23 (8th in East)

6.52 (6.80)

Nashville SC

45.7%

11.39

4.39

24 (23.7)

21 (19.7)

27 (6th in West)

6.63 (6.88)

To start, a quick tangent: I love that Nashville goes by "SC" and not "FC". While I love Charlotte, it has always bothered me that MLS teams try to emulate the rest of the soccer world by saying "football club." In general, Americans don't say "football" when talking about soccer; that term is reserved for American football. Yes, sometimes I revert to it, but--and maybe this is just me--most of those instances are when I'm talking about EPL, another European league, or international competitions. For MLS, I'm pretty much a "soccer" guy. So the fact that Nashville eschews this, leaning into "soccer," is something I appreciate.


Back to the stats.


Nashville doesn't want the ball. They're 6th to last in the league in possession, which isn't surprising given their reputation as a defensive-minded team. Indeed, they're the 4th best in terms of goals allowed in the Western Conference and 8th in the entire league. They haven't allowed more than two goals in a game all year, but they haven't played most of the heavy hitters of goal-scoring yet (i.e., NYCFC, Austin, LAFC, Montréal), except for Montréal. All 4 of these teams have over 30 goals for the year and against Montréal, Nashville only allowed 1 goal.


This isn't to say that they haven't faced teams that can score. They've played two games against San Jose (27 goals on the year) and only allowed 2 goals (a 2-2 draw and a 0-0 draw). They've also drawn against Portland (29 goals on the year) and lost to Dallas (28 goals on the year).


Nashville's issue, similar to Charlotte's, is scoring. For example, while it's impressive that they shut out San Jose, the fact that they couldn't score (at home) is problematic. San Jose has allowed the most goals (35) in the entire league. Only twice all season have they scored 3 in a game (5/28 against Colorado and 6/25 against DC). It would not be surprising if this game turned out to be a 1-0 affair.

 
Nashville vs. Sporting KC, 6/19, via MLS
Nashville vs. Sporting KC, 6/19, via MLS

According to MLS, Nashville has run through several different formations on the year, including switching between a back 4 and a back 3. They've played in a 4-1-2-1-2 (twice), a 4-1-3-2 (once), a 3-4-2-1 (five times), a 3-5-2 (six times), a 3-1-4-2 (twice), and a 4-4-2 (twice). As always, formations are fluid and the distinction between some can be small. What does seem apparent, though, is Nashville prefers to play with 3 at the back and with 2 strikers. That's not to say we'll see that, but chances are good.


Injury/Suspension

According to the MLS Availability Report, Nashville has 3 injured players: midfielders Anibal Godoy (thigh) and Handwalla Bwana (thigh) and defender Robert Castellanos (right ankle surgery).


Attack

As if to further cement their defensive reputation, Nashville list only 4 players as forwards: Aké Arnoud Loba, Ethan Zubak, Charles Kwabena (CJ) Sapong, and Teal Bunbury. FBref has Bwana also listed as a forward and has Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal listed as "FW,MF." I will be including Mukhtar in the attack and Leal in the midfielders section.

Nashville vs. DC, 6/25, via MLS
Nashville vs. DC, 6/25, via MLS

Bwana, as previously mentioned, is out, having only appeared once all season for 13 minutes. The 25-year-old Somalian has never really played much at the MLS level. He got into 12 games as a 20-year-old with Seattle in 2018 and followed that up with a 15-game appearance the following year. Over the past 3 seasons (2020 split between Seattle and Nashville and the last two with Nashville), he has made a total of 12 appearances. He only has 4 career goals and hasn't scored one since 2020 with Seattle.


Bunbury and Zubak haven't played much this year, either. Bunbury has 5 appearances (1 start) and Zubak has 6 appearances (1 start). Neither has scored a goal on the year. Zubak is in his first season with Nashville having joined from the LA Galaxy. With the Galaxy, he had 36 appearances (17 starts) but scored only 3 times. Bunbury is a MLS vet and in his first year with Nashville. He spent the previous 8 seasons with NE (and his first 4 seasons as a pro with Sporting KC). He was a decent player for NE, appearing in 231 games for them, but only scoring 45 goals. He's only been in double-digit goals once in his career back in 2018. Neither player should strike too much fear into Charlotte if they see the pitch.

Nashville vs. Portland, 7/3, via MLS
Nashville vs. Portland, 7/3, via MLS

Loba is in his second year with Nashville having joined from Liga MX club Monterrey. The 24-year-old Ivorian scored 18 goals (in 32 appearances) as a 19-year-old in the Peruvian first division (7 of those goals were PKs though). This brought about his move to Querétaro in Mexico, where he spent two seasons. He appeared in a total of 34 games for Querétaro (23 starts) and only managed 9 goals during his time there. He moved to Monterrey for 3 seasons where he appeared in 21 games (12 starts) and scored 5 goals. He's scored twice in his Nashville career, including once this year. He's yet to make a start for Nashville; in fact, he only made 2 of them last year. Instead, he is a man off the bench, as he's appeared in 17 games (only 287 total minutes). He is one of their DPs, but so far he doesn't seem worth the place.


Sapong is a MLS vet, having been in the league since 2011. He began his career with Sporting KC, making 110 appearances for them and scoring 20 goals. He then went to Philadelphia for 4 seasons, where he made 123 appearances and scored 36 goals. He spent two seasons with Chicago, making 43 appearances and scoring 15 goals. He joined Nashville last year and has made 51 appearances for them, scoring 17 goals including 5 this year.


Sapong is a weird player who over the past 6 seasons has alternated good and bad years. In 2017 he had 16 goals and 4 assists for Philly but followed that season up with a 4 goal, 3 assist season. In his next season and his first with Chicago, he scored 13 goals and had 1 assist. He followed that season up with a 2-goal, 0 assist season. He then had 12 goals and 4 assists last year for Nashville. If he continued that trend, this season would seem to be a down one for him, however, with 5 goals already, maybe he's broken the cycle.


The real strength of Sapong lies in his aerial ability. He's only listed at 6'1", however, at 185 pounds, he's a big guy. Over the past 365 days, he's in the 97th percentile for aerials won and % of aerials won, along with being in the 92nd percentile for passes attempted with the head. While he doesn't take a ton of shots (2.14 per 90, 21st percentile) when he does they are usually on target (88th percentile for shots on target percentage).


The real star of Nashville's attack is Mukhtar.

Mukhtar heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore
Mukhtar heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore

You probably have to follow the link to make this chart out, but Mukhtar is the yellow dot in the top right corner. The TL;DR is he's good...like, really good. Basically, Mukhtar shoots a lot and takes really good, high-percentage shots.


The 27-year-old German began his career with Hertha Berlin. While he did make 10 appearances for Hertha as an 18-year-old, he never scored for them. He signed with Portuguese giant Benfica in 2014, but only ever made 1 appearance for them. He was loaned to RB Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga for the 2015-16 season. With Salzburg, he made 13 appearances, but only had 1 goal with 2 assists for the season. He was then loaned to Brøndby in the Danish Superliga in 2016-17 and they bought him the following season. He spent 4 seasons with Brøndby, making 106 appearances (100 starts), scoring 24 goals, and getting 23 assists. His time there included a 10-goal, 10-assist season in 2017-18. He moved to Nashville in 2020. Over that season, with his time split between Brøndby and Nashville, he made 27 appearances with 6 goals and 4 assists. He exploded last year. Over 31 appearances (28 starts), Mukhtar had 16 goals (1 PK) and 10 assists. So far this year, he's got 9 goals and 3 assists.

Mukhtar heatmap, 2021, via SofaScore
Mukhtar heatmap, 2021, via SofaScore

Mukhtar is an attacking midfielder but will start alongside a striker. At only 5'8", he makes a perfect complement to Sapong.


What's interesting about Mukhtar is how Nashville has slowly changed his role and positioning. On the face of it, his heatmaps over the past 3 years don't look hugely different. However, what you should notice is how he is creeping further to goal.


In 2020, he's all over the middle of the field, but when it comes to the final third and the penalty box, he's mostly just in the center of the box. Then in 2021, he's still all over the pitch in the middle of the park, but now he's also all over the place in the final third and the box. Finally, this season, he remains a roamer in the middle of the park, but he's refined where he is in the final third. Unlike last year, he's not drifting into the wide areas around the box as much. Instead, he's putting himself in all parts of the box. This signals a change--either by the player, but more likely by the coach and team--to have Mukhtar focus on being a goal-scorer. I'm sure they don't want to take away his ability to find teammates, but they clearly know they have a player who can find the back of the net consistently and effectively. As such, why have him assists others when he can just score himself?

Mukhtar heatmap, 2020, via SofaScore
Mukhtar heatmap, 2020, via SofaScore

When looking for bias in his heatmap, there isn't much. It appears he prefers the left side of the pitch when he's in the middle 3rd, but it's not drastic. What I do find interesting this year is that if Mukhtar does drift wide around the box, he does so on the left side. But, when he's in the box, he's popping up more on the right side. This is especially interesting since he is an 87% right-footed player according to FBref. I would normally expect a left-footed player to be favoring the right of the box so he can come back onto his preferred foot.


When it comes to his percentiles over the past 365 days, he's off the charts. Interestingly, FBref has him comparable to forwards, attacking midfielders/wingers, and midfielders. The first two make sense, but I don't think it's fair to call him a midfielder. Regardless his percentiles show him to be an elite player, though some areas naturally improve or worsen depending on the comparison. For example, his passing is elite if you consider him a forward, mediocre if you consider him an attacking midfielder/winger, and atrocious if you consider him a midfielder. With that said, if you want to be truly impressed by a player, take a look at them yourself here. Note especially his goal-scoring ability, possession stats, and goal/shot creation.


Midfield

Nashville has 10 players listed as a midfielder, including Mukhtar, who we discussed above, and Bwana and Godoy, who are both out injured. Their midfielders include Irakoze Donasiyano, Luke Haakenson Brian Anunga, Randall Leal, Alex Muyl, Sean Davis, and Dax McCarty.


Godoy is a miss for them, as he had started 8 games (and appeared in 12). He had a goal and an assist on the year. Donasiyano, on the other hand, hasn't gotten into a game for them all year and only has one career appearance--last year--for 27 minutes.

Davis defensive percentiles, past 365 days, via FBref
Davis defensive percentiles, past 365 days, via FBref

Davis is the only nailed-on starter of this group. The 29-year-old American is in his first year with Nashville and has started 17 of the 18 games he's appeared in. Davis is a defensive midfielder, so it's a little surprising he has a goal on the season. It's his first goal in MLS since 2017 when he was a 23-year-old for RBNY. In fact, before this year, Davis hadn't had a goal or assist in the league since 2019 when he had 1 for RBNY.


Davis is in the team for his defensive nous. As you can see on the left, he's adept in most defensive areas and is especially active in the middle 3rd for tackling.


His ability against dribblers is...weird. He's very good at contesting and tackling them, but he also gets dribbled past a lot. Without having watched him play, I don't know if this is a result of him actively seeking dribblers, which gives him more opportunities to fail, or if it is just a weird quirk of his game.


While not shown here, he's also really good in the air (74th percentile for aerials won, 97th percentile for aerials lost, and 99th percentile for percentage of aerials won).


Old USMNT player friend McCarty plays pretty often for Nashville, having 15 appearances and 10 starts. At 35, he's no longer the player he once was, but can still be effective. McCarty was never much of a goal scorer, but he used to chip in about 4 assists per year. He had 3 in his first year with Nashville, but only managed 2 last year and has but one this year. Defensively he's still solid, especially against dribblers, and, unlike Davis, he will pressure opponents, specifically in the defensive 3rd (82nd percentile for defensive 3rd pressures). His passing isn't what it once was--although he's also playing for Nashville now and not RBNY--but he can still cause some issues with it (77th percentile for progressive passing distance, 81st percentile for long pass completion percentage).

Leal heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore
Leal heatmap, 2022, via SofaScore

Leal is an interesting player for Nashville. The 25-year-old Costa Rican plays all over the place, at least according to FBref. They have him playing games as an attacking mid, left mid, right-winger, central midfielder, and defensive midfielder. His heatmap shows a player who is predominately on the right side of the pitch, but if you look at the lineups of the past two games, he's been started on the left side or in central midfield. His heatmaps from 2021 and 2020 have him all over the field, so his right-sided bias this year is surprising and may not be permanent. Regardless, Nashville is going to get Leal into the game somehow.


He's played in 13 games this year, starting 12. This is coming off a season last year when he started 25 games and appeared in 31. He's a real contributor to goals from the midfield. In his first season with Nashville (2020), he got 3 goals and 4 assists in 21 appearances. Last year he upped both of those tallies to 8 goals and 7 assists. So far this year, he has 1 goal and 4 assists. He's a dangerous passer in open play, as he's in the 93rd percentile for goal-creating actions via live passes, the 80th percentile for shot-creating actions via live passing, and the 93rd percentile for through balls. Importantly, even though he's not a prolific dribbler, he does draw a lot of fouls (96th percentile for fouls drawn), so I assume he uses his body well. His goal-scoring numbers are all in the 90th percentile range if you compare him to other midfielders.


It should be noted that the numbers above are comparing him to other midfielders and things change for him if you compare him to attacking midfielders/wingers. Being that he plays all over the place, I'm not sure which one is the better fit for him. In the end, his strength (dangerous passing) doesn't change, so it doesn't really matter, but just something to be aware of.

Anunga passing percentiles, past 365 days, via FBref
Anunga passing percentiles, past 365 days, via FBref

Anunga is another defensive midfielder for Nashville. He's gotten into 14 games (6 starts). This is off the back of a 25 appearances, 17 start season last year. Anunga is a much more energetic player than McCarty or Davis, as he pressures opponents a lot. He's in the 87th percentile for pressures and the 96th percentile for defensive 3rd pressures. What probably keeps him from more playing time is his poor passing. It's honestly one of the worst that I've seen from a midfielder, as there really isn't a strength to be found. If he does play, Charlotte should do everything they can to make him a distributor, rather than Davis, McCarty, or another midfielder.


Haakenson is a former Charlotte Independence player, as he was on loan with them back in 2020. He made 16 appearances (12 starts) and had 3 goals and 2 assists that year. Returning to Nashville last year, Haakenson got into 19 games but only made 3 starts. He had a total of 362 minutes, or 4 90s, but did manage 2 goals in that time. This year, he has yet to get a goal but does have 3 assists in 11 appearances (5 starts).


Similarly to Leal, Nashville is playing Haakenson all over the place. He's played as a right-winger, attacking midfielder, central midfielder, and right and left midfielder. He is predominately deployed in the center of the park, but his flexibility is what is allowing him to get more game time. For an advanced player, he does a job on defense. FBref has him compared to attacking midfielders/wingers and, if you view him that way, he's really good defensively. He's in the 94th percentile for defensive 3rd tackles, 99th percentile for percentage of dribblers tackled, 95th percentile for dribbled past, 89th percentile for successful pressures, and 99th percentile for shots blocks.


Being that Haakenson is such a young player--at least in terms of playing time, if not age, as he is almost 25)--I don't know if this categorization of him is correct. What I will say, though, is that even if his percentiles for defense are inflated due to a positional mischaracterization, the percentiles show a player willing to put in the defensive effort. On a team like Nashville that will get you far.


Muyl is the last of the midfielders, although FBref has him listed as a defender. As you can guess, this discrepancy is because Muyl plays as a wingback in a back 3. Looking at his gametime, at least according to FBref, it does appear that he's a true wingback and doesn't play as a fullback when Nashville goes back 4.


Muyl is another former RBNY player for Nashville. He's incredibly consistent with his end product as he's scored 3 goals every year for his professional career (if you include MLS and USL stats together) except 2020. In 2016, he made his debut for RBNY at 20 years of age, getting in 27 games and getting 2 goals and 3 assists (he had another goal in the USL that year for RBII). The following year, he got 3 goals and 3 assists in 30 appearances for RBNY. In 2018 he had 3 goals and 5 assists. In 2019 he had 3 goals and 2 assists. 2020 is the only year when he hasn't scored 3 goals. He did have 2 assists in 21 appearances across RBNY, RBII, and Nashville. Last year he returned to normalcy, getting 3 goals and 1 assist. So far this year he has 2 goals and 1 assist.


What's interesting about Muyl is that whether you compare him to midfielders or fullbacks, his strengths (defense and goal scoring) stay the same, while his weakness (passing) does as well. He's a player who makes an impact in the defensive 3rd and the attacking 3rd, but shouldn't be involved in the buildup in between.


Defensive

Nashville lists 9 players as defenders, including Ahmed Longmire, Josh Bauer, Eric Miller, Jack Maher, Walker Zimmerman, Daniel Lovitz, David Romney, Taylor Washington, and Castellanos, who is not only injured but also on loan to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Longmire and Bauer have not played for Nashville yet.


Miller, Washington, and Lovitz are Nashville's fullbacks/wingbacks. Miller plays on the right side and has gotten into 12 games (11 starts). Lovitz and Washington play on the left, with Lovitz starting 15 games (16 appearances) and Washington starting 4 games (8 appearances).


Miller has yet to score a goal or get an assist and the chances are he won't. Miller is 29 and in his 9th season; he has 2 career assists and has never scored a goal. He hasn't had an assist since 2018 when he was with Minnesota. He's playing more this year than he has over the past few seasons. He made 11 appearances for Minnesota and NYCFC in 2019, 6 appearances for Nashville in 2020, and 13 appearances for Nashville last year. Being that he's already at 12 appearances, he's in line to play more than he has since he was 25. It should also be noted that, at least according to FBref, he has been deployed as a CB on occasion.


Honestly, when looking at his numbers, it's not hard to see why he hasn't played a lot. Aside from an excellent ability to tackle dribblers (83rd percentile for percentage of dribblers tackled), Miller doesn't do anything particularly well. He's not a bad player, but he's more suited to a role/depth piece.


Lovitz is a MLS vet having been in the league since 2014. He's in his 3rd season with Nashville and has been solid for them. Over 64 appearances for Nashville, he has 2 goals and 7 assists. While that doesn't seem great, it's exactly as many goals and assists as he had in the previous 6 seasons of his career. In fact, last year's tally of 4 assists is really good for a fullback. Similar to Miller, nothing jumps out about Lovitz aside from his long passing ability (85th percentile for long passes completed) and progressive passing (80th percentile).


Washington is probably the most "offensive" of this group, although I don't think any of these fullbacks are particularly impressive. He has 1 assist on the year and has never been particularly prolific in that department. His best season was probably 2019 when he had 3 assists (along with a goal). Other than that year, he's never had more than 1 assist in a season and has multiple seasons of 0 assists.


I define Washington as "offensive" simply because of his carry numbers (91st percentile of carries into the final third), his dribbling ability (89th percentile), and crossing (99th percentile for crosses, 97th percentile for crosses into the penalty area). Overall his passing isn't great, he won't score or assist, and his defensive ability is pretty bad, which probably explains why Lovitz and Miller get more time than him. Neither of them are great, but they're better than Washington. Again, none of these fullbacks are particularly impressive and shouldn't be a primary concern for Charlotte.


Maher (16 apps, 12 starts), Zimmerman (16 apps, 14 starts), and Romney (17 apps, 17 starts) have all played a lot for Nashville. Romney has two goals on the year, while Zimmerman has a goal and an assist. Maher has yet to get on the scoresheet. Romney and Zimmerman are the elder statesmen of the group as both are 29. Maher is only 22. Based on the numbers and the previous 3 games' starting lineups (and without looking through every single game), my assumption is that Maher plays when they go back 3, while Romney and Zimmerman will play in a back 3 or back 4.


Maher is very clearly a young CB. His numbers aren't terrible and his passing shows promise (77th percentile for pass completion percentage, 89th percentile for medium completion percentage), but he's a work in progress. Right now his best attribute his ability against dribblers (90th percentile for percentage of dribblers tackled, 92nd percentile for dribbled past). Elsewhere he's not a great tackler and doesn't pressure much. It's not surprising that he's only starting in a back 3 (if my assumption is correct).

Zimmerman is of course the big name and one of the best CBs in the league. He's a danger to score a goal (96th percentile) and is a decent long passer (75th percentile for long passes completed). He's really good in the air (97th percentile for aerials won, 85 percentile for percentage of aerials won). To be honest, I was a bit surprised by Zimerman's percentiles in defense. Obviously, the successful pressure percentage is great, but nothing else really jumps out. Of course, this is one of the issues when talking about defense with numbers, namely, that they don't really capture a defender's full ability (yet). With defenders, things like positioning, reading of the game, offsides traps, etc. are hugely important and can't be captured in a number (again, yet?). As such, while numbers may not jump out, here is where we probably have to rely on the eye test a bit more. Zimmerman is good.


Like Zimmerman, Romney's numbers also don't show an "exceptional" defender. His only great number is being in the 91st percentile for dribbled past, with the caveat that he's in the 3rd percentile for dribbles contested (i.e., he doesn't do it a lot). Again, an eye test (which, quite frankly, I don't have for him) has to supersede the numbers here. The fact that Romney starts every game for Nashville since their inception implies his level, at least in Nashville's eyes. The one statement I will make about Romney is that even though he's 6'2", he's not particularly good in the air (53rd percentile of aerials won). The fact that Nashville has others who are (Zimmerman, Sapong, Davis) allows this to be less of an issue.


Goalkeeping

Nashville list 4 goalkeepers: Will Meyer, Elliot Panicco, Joe Willis, and Bryan Meredith. Meyer is a recent draft pick for Nashville (10th pick in the 2nd round of 2022) and hasn't played for them yet. Meredith is on loan to the Indy Eleven in the USL Championship. Panicco (2 starts) is their backup and Willis is their starter (16 starts).


Willis is a solid, but unspectacular goalkeeper who definitely benefits from player behind Nashville's defense. He's in his 12th professional season and his 3rd with Nashville. His goals allowed per 90 numbers (GA90) is really good with Nashville. He was at 0.96 in 2020, 0.97 in 2021, and 1.00 this year. These numbers are in stark contrast to his numbers with Houston (5 seasons, 1.60 GA90) and DC (4 seasons, 1.89 GA90). HIs PSxG+/- numbers have only been positive once, in 2020 when it was +0.7. Last year he as at -0.4 PSxG+/- and this year he is at -2.6.


You probably can't say that his GA90 is completely the result of the defensive in front of him, but I'd wager it's like 90% of it. Over the past 365 days, his PSxG is in the 99th percentile. That's good! He's stopping the shots he should be. However, his PSxG/SoT, which measures how difficult a shot is, is in the 1st percentile (!!!!). His shots on target against are in the 25th percentile. Basically, he doesn't see a ton of shots and he definitely doesn't see difficult shots. That's Nashville's defense at work. I don't want to say any goalkeeper with Nashville's defense and team tactics could be doing the job Willis is, but...


In fairness to Willis, I may be missing something because, like defensive metrics, goalkeeping metrics can't tell the whole story (none really can, but metrics for attackers and midfielders do a better job). He may not be a bad keeper and he may even have some strengths someone more dialed into that position could elaborate on. My basic point, though, is that with Nashville's distinct emphasis on defense, many goalkeepers would be successful in that team.


Conclusion

We definitely shouldn't expect a lot of goals this weekend. Both of these teams play really good defense and both struggle to score. The fact Charlotte are playing at home might be the edge for them, but they will have to work for a goal (or even a sight of goal).


I know there was a lot of angst among Charlotte fans regarding Jóźwiak's lack of end product on Sunday. I won't lie and say it didn't frustrate me also. However, I do think he did a lot of things well in that game. From the time of his signing, I advocated tempering expectations for him, especially for goal-scoring. This is a player who has had one season of 8 goals and, aside from that year, never more than 3. I remain steadfast in saying I don't think we should read too much into his time at Derby. If you know anything about what is happening at that club, you know it's a mess and could definitely affect a player. This is especially true of a 22-year-old one who left his homeland in the middle of a global pandemic. I'm not saying we completely ignore that time, but it should be put in proper context. I see too much talent to give up on him yet.


With that said, Shinyashiki and Gaines look like a fantastic partnership. Clearly, we would need to see more of them together than just a 30-minute cameo, however, some players just work together. I still want to see a front three of Shinyashiki, Świderski, and Jóźwiak more, but it is nice to know we might have an alternative.


I also want to take the time to say I was wrong about Bronico. For much of the early part of the season, I thought his position was a prime candidate for an upgrade. However, with each week he continues to prove me wrong (and I'll gladly have that happen). Against Houston he was immense. I like what I've seen from the partnership of Corujo and Walkes, but they're far from perfect. Moreover, Corujo's aggressiveness can sometimes get him in trouble. Bronico's ability to provide defensive support and coverage is really becoming invaluable to this team. Mea culpa, Brandt.


Prediction: Charlotte 1 - Nashville 0

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