When he began his college soccer career, Ontario native Alistair Johnston was a do-everything player for St. John’s University. After a couple seasons in New York City, the versatile defender/midfielder decided on a change of scenery. After asking for a release from St. John’s, he had a number of schools interested.
Wake Forest head coach Bobby Muuss already knew that the 5-11, 170-pounder was a talented player. A scouting trip to Canada gave him an even fuller impression of the player Johnston is on and off the field.
“I saw him play pickup with his club team in Canada, just during the Winter,” Muus explained. “I said, ‘this kid’s a leader, this kid’s an unbelievable person.’ He was like a ringleader of everybody, just a great personality. His personality is infectious and people want to be around him, he’s always smiling, he’s got great banter, and he’s a good soccer player.”
Johnston played out his final two years of college eligibility with the Demon Deacons. He had to earn his spot in the lineup for WFU as a junior transfer, but played a massive role for Wake’s College Cup (NCAA final four) squad as a senior.
That saw him earn a first-round Draft pick by Nashville SC. He was one of six players selected in advance of NSC’s first season in Major league soccer. NSC General Manager Mike Jacobs traded up to make sure he’d be able to select the young Canadian, swapping $50,000 in General Allocation Money for Colorado Rapids’ No. 11 slot in the Draft.
“This is a young man that transferred to Wake Forest wanting an opportunity to continue to develop both academically and athletically, and be challenged,” Muuss explained. “He was a reserve, frankly, his junior year as a central midfielder. He got some starts, but mainly a reserve. He made a positional change because of some injuries, and [it turned out well enough that] I thought actually he dropped lower than maybe he should have gone in the Draft.
“He was a ginormous piece of what we’re doing. In college soccer, you lose guys all the time. Someone’s going to have to play that role next year, but he’s not going to be Ally. That’s not saying that we’re not going to be successful, and the person that plays is not going to do a great job with the opportunity, but just the honesty and the soccer IQ that Alistair had, what he brought to the game, with the experience and the maturity. Those intangibles you don’t see a lot of times nowadays. That’s what we’re going to miss.”
The switch from central midfield to the right back position is what gave Johnston his opening. He walked through it, and passed the test with flying colors. While he’s still inexperienced at the position, Muuss sees it as his former pupil’s professional future.
There’s going to be plenty of learning to make the transition to the professional game, of course. Johnston is still learning the intricacies of playing along the backline, and Major League Soccer brings a whole new level of mental challenge from a tactical standpoint.
There’s no question that the 21-year old will do everything in his power to not only maintain his peak physical shape, but do the mental work to maximize his chance to stick in MLS for a long time with Nashville SC.
“I think that he’s a right back, I do,” Muuss said. “I feel that he’s right-foot dominant – not in a negative way, he’ll use his left – but he opens up his body very well using his right. I do think just because of his engine and his fitness level, the way he treats himself, the way he eats, the way he recovers, he is a pro’s pro with the way he takes care of and manages his body.
“Physically, he’s going to be fine: he’s a man. He is, he’s a physical specimen and he takes care of his body to be able to prolong and be able to go through the long season. I think he’ll be fine with that. Like I said, he’s a pro’s pro with the way he handles his nutrition, his fitness, his regeneration: he’ll do a great job with that.
“I think he’s still learning the position: When to get forward, how to get forward. He does a great job with does he come inside, does he go outside. Learning a system. Learning the coaching style of what is expected from that position. Obviously, he’s a bigtime student of the game: he’ll watch video all day long if you ask him to. If he has it, you don’t even have to ask him. I do think his timing, his spacing defensively – are they pressing, are they not – with his spacing sometimes he can be a little bit over-aggressive defensively. Just understanding the spacing and the timing in whatever press or whatever system that coach has him playing in.”
Nashville SC’s front office sees a long professional career for Johnston as well, but he’ll have to compete for playing time if he wants to make an impact as a rookie. MLS veteran Eric Miller and former Honduras international Brayan Beckeles started for New York City FC and CD Olimpia (a qualifer for the Concacaf Champions League out of Hionduras) are the more grizzled counterparts at the right back position for the 2020 season in Nashville.
However, given Johnston’s natural athletic ability, work ethic, and intangible factors both on and off the field, there should be little question he’ll reach his fullest potential.
Alistair Johnston photo courtesy Wake Forest Athletics.