While they do have a few strengths at the back including the aforementioned Hamid and center back Steve Birnbaum, both of these players (including Paul Arriola who could be deployed as a wing back) will miss the start of the season. Depth in defense was a concern prior to these injuries, so this is a major red flag. One way Losada could try and paper up these cracks is by avoiding the issue entirely, leaning into the high press and aiming to regain the ball higher up the pitch and keep the ball as far away from the goal as possible. The case will likely be very much the same in certain games for D.C. without the ball as it was Beerschot: Toronto, Columbus, etc. all could require them to display more careful pragmatism.
So, as D.C. United look to leave Ben Olsen’s plodding style of play in the past, and make the most out of the signings from last summer – what’s the outlook? While this is quite easy to say, Losada *should* have a free hit this season, especially in the early months. Whether or not Losada looks to employ a new formation, fans should be patient. There may be some growing pains given the changes required to become the protagonists with the ball, getting last season’s big money acquisition to at least find a decent baseline to judge them from, AND a lack of depth in other areas. The roster even at its very best is not at a level to see United go to the top of the Eastern Conference, but a mid table finish would be very good signs that post-Olsen the club are moving in the right direction. And judging by fans’ general opinions at the moment, just something that is more fun to watch is what they desire, first and foremost.
DC supporters will hope these flurry of front office changes signifies a real desire to return DC to the status of a club at the forefront of MLS, both in terms of organizational structure and data analysis (hence the hiring of Rushton) as well as competitiveness on the pitch.
Nashville: Leal is fair in Lovitz and W.A.R.
By Ben Wright
I finished my 2020 Nashville SC preview with the following:
“This team will struggle to consistently score goals and will grind out a lot of 0-0 or 1-1 draws. If Ríos, Mukhtar, and Leal can adapt to the league, or a high-level striker is brought in, this side could challenge for one of the final playoff spots in the west. Staying in the playoff hunt until late in the season looks like a pretty reasonable goal at this point.”
Other than moving to the East due to Covid, I’d say that was pretty spot on. Add in Walker Zimmerman arriving with the passion of a Broadway bachelorette party and the explosiveness of a Keith Urban guitar solo, and you have a historically successful expansion season. They played great defense, struggled to score for two thirds of the season, and proved to be a bear to play against in a knockout match.
2020 in Review
It wasn’t at all the expansion season Nashville expected. After nearly 60,000 fans watched their MLS debut against Atlanta in February, Nashville was struck with devastating tornadoes, damaging several players’ homes, and then Covid put the league on hold. Just as it looked like they’d get back to playing matches, over 10 of their travelling delegation tested positive for Covid and they were removed from the MLS is Back tournament.
When Nashville finally got back on the field in August, they were what everyone thought they’d be; a very good defensive side that struggled to score goals. That improved down the stretch, though. Daniel Ríos, Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal found their form, and the arrival of DP striker Jhonder Cádiz saw Nashville finish the final eight matches of the season as the third-highest scoring team in the league. They didn’t just qualify for the playoffs, either. They knocked off Inter Miami and Toronto FC before falling to eventual champions Columbus Crew in extra time.
From a numbers standpoint, Nashville didn’t deviate too much from expectations. They finished two points higher than their 29.77 xPts, slightly underperformed their xG and overperformed on their xGF. It’s hard to argue that their 2020 performance came down to luck. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a very repeatable result.
Offseason Roster Changes
Nashville returned most of their core while upgrading several key areas. Their entire starting defense is returning, including star weatherman-moonlighting-as a-right-back Alistar Johnston, who made his international debut for Canada this offseason after bursting onto the scene in his rookie season.
Similar to what they did in the USL Championship, Nashville has bolstered their attack after year one. They brought in veteran striker CJ Sapong and winger Rodrigo Piñeiro from Uruguayan squad Danubio. Their staff would also tell you that Cádiz and Handwalla Bwana, both signed towards the tail end of 2020, were brought in largely for 2021 and should be more impactful contributors this season.
All of their SuperDraft picks, including Irakoze Donasiyano (taken 20th overall from Virginia) will remain with their college sides until the spring season is over. Nashville will have decisions to make on those five players and if they’ll be part of their first team.