VOL. 42 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 2, 2018
Five players to watch as Nashville SC takes shape
By John Glennon
Matt Pickens during the first day of practice this week. -- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Mackenzie Crooks | Nashville Sc
Over the last several months, Nashville SC’s staff has scoured this country and beyond in search of soccer talent.
In just over a week, the product will be put on public display for the first time.
The team’s first preseason game – against MLS club Atlanta FC on Feb. 10 – will be played at First Tennessee Park, giving Nashville soccer fans an initial glimpse of Music City’s newest pro squad.
But just who are Nashville SC’s players? Where do they come from? What are their backgrounds, and what should we expect of them?
Here are five players to follow, not only for the preseason game on Feb. 10, but throughout the United Soccer League regular season from March through October:
Height, weight: 6-2, 201
Birthplace: Mississauga, Toronto, Canada
Why he’s worth watching: Dunstan is a player with Tennessee ties. He played three years at Bryan College in Dayton and he was named the Appalachian Athletic Conference’s player of the year in 2016. Dunstan also played three seasons for Chattanooga FC of the National Premier Soccer League – a step below the United Soccer League – and totaled a goal and four assists in 13 games last season.
How he wound up here: The Nashville SC staff was more familiar with Dunstan than many other prospects because he’d played just down the road. The more they watched film of him, the more they figured the big, left-footed back would be a good fit here. He’d finished his college career at Bryan and was also looking to move into a professional league, so it made sense to sign him. Dunstan is a bit raw, but has plenty of upside.
What Nashville SC coach Gary Smith says: “He’s at the entry point of his professional career, with a huge amount of development to be had. The huge volume of time you can spend with players in a professional set-up should lend itself to accelerated development.
“If he’s in the right frame of mind and wants to take information and practical work on board, then there’s no reason why Jordan shouldn’t be moving in an extremely positive direction.”
Odds and ends: Dunstan tore his ACL in May of 2015, but returned in 2016 as part of a Bryan team that outscored opponents 54-14 over the course of the season.
Height, weight: 6-4, 196
Birthplace: Accra, Ghana
Why he’s worth watching: A dynamic striker, Mensah might be the first Nashville SC player who makes local soccer fans say `Wow.’ As a 19-year-old in the USL last season, Mensah scored seven goals in just 23 shots on goal. Mensah played as a lone striker on a poor team last season, showing he could create offense – both for himself and teammates – while often battling multiple defenders.
How he wound up here: On loan from his team in Ghana, Mensah played last season for Harrisburg City of the USL. Smith liked what he saw of the striker, so he made a play for him. Mensah is now on loan to Nashville SC, with the team holding a club option to buy after the season.
What Nashville SC coach Gary Smith says: “He’s one of a few guys that you look at and you say, `There’s so much potential here.’ There’s no way of putting on a cap on what he could achieve – not only on the level he’s at right now, where he’ll be extremely competitive for the starting lineup, but he’s got a future in him as well. We have in our contract with Ropapa the opportunity – if all goes well – to make it a permanent deal.”
Odds and ends: Will he go by Ropapa or will a shorter nickname be found? “I’m not quite sure where we’re going to go with that one,” Smith says. “Ropapa is a bit of a mouthful. We’ll work it out when he gets here. I’m sure it will be fine.”
Height, weight: 6-3, 200
Birthplace: Washington, Missouri
Why he’s worth watching: Pickens was the very first player signed by Nashville SC, in part because of a long relationship with Smith and in part because of his extensive experience in net. He played a decade in MLS, starting 154 games. Pickens was also a part of five U.S. men’s national team camps. He’ll be looked to for leadership and quality play on a first-year team.
How he wound up here: Pickens and Smith go back to 2009, when Pickens was on the Colorado Rapids team that Smith coached. In 2010, the Rapids won the MLS championship, and Smith adds he can still see Pickens making a diving save of a Dax McCarty shot in the late going to preserve that milestone victory. Pickens played last season for Tampa Bay of the USL, where he recorded 10 shut-outs in 30 games. He’ll compete with C.J. Cochran for the starting position.
What Nashville SC coach Gary Smith says: “We have a brand new (team). So, to have a core of experienced players – and Matt being a mainstay in that area – is important to offer support, to guide some of the younger players when things might not be going as planned. He’ll certainly lay some good foundations in that locker room, along with some others.”
Height, weight: 6-0, 165
Birthplace: London, England
Why he’s worth watching: The 29-year-old Shroot has always shown an ability to produce offense, whether as a goal-scorer or playmaker. He’s not a physically dominant player who will overpower defenders as a lone forward, but does his best work when teamed with another striker up front. His experience and his intelligence will be valuable assets on a first-year team.
How he wound up here: Shroot has ties to Smith from England, as they originally met when Smith was coaching in Wimbledon FC’s youth system. Smith later coached Shroot at Stevenage, a League One team in England. Shroot spent the last three seasons playing in Norway, scoring 38 goals in 74 games.
What Nashville SC coach Gary Smith says: “Robin is a bit of a student and scholar of the game. He’s a very intelligent player. He’s very gifted. He’s got good balance and he’s good with his left and right foot. He’s very much a creator and a team catalyst.”
Odds and ends: Shroot played in a prestigious FA Cup game in England. He was part of a Stevenage team that battled Tottenham Hotspur to a draw before losing the replay.
Height, weight: 6-1, 188
Birthplace: McKinney, Texas
Why he’s worth watching: Woodberry has played the third-most MLS games on the Nashville SC roster, trailing only Pickens and defender Kosuke Kimura. The difference is that Woodberry is 26 years old, several years younger than Pickens and Kimura. Woodberry started a combined 41 MLS games for the New England Revolution in 2015 and 2016. He’s most comfortable at right back or right center back, where he’ll be expected to be a defensive leader.
How he wound up here: When Nashville SC learned that an early signee, Oumar Ballo, wouldn’t be able to play this season due to visa issues, the team began searching for a potential replacement. Somewhat unexpectedly, they discovered that Woodberry – an excellent fit – was available after his MLS option had not been picked up.
What Nashville SC coach Gary Smith says: “Because of his experience, he’ll have a voice and he’ll be able to offer experience that some of the other guys haven’t got. His main assets are his pace and athletic ability, and also his technical ability for a defender on the ball. He’s very comfortable and confident, and I think he’ll give us a really nice dimension.”
Odds and ends: Woodberry played for the U.S. Men’s national under-18 team in 2008, scoring a goal during the team’s run to the gold medal at the Australian International Olympic Festival.
Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.