Jack Maher photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
One of Nashville SC’s draft picks had a solid year in Gold – after a little time spent on loan. Let us take a look at Jack Maher’s performance.
You don’t drive a few hours to go surprise a player at his house unless you’re 1) trying to preserve some of the spectacle of “Draft Day,” which has mostly gone from soccer despite its importance in other major American sports, and 2) pretty confident that the guy you’re picking is a big deal. That was indeed the case when Nashville SC took a bus full of supporters to Metro St. Louis to pick Jack Maher in person.
That said, the expectations for a college player in MLS generally are pretty low (certainly there are contributors, but very few are going to be big-time players as rookies). That was underscored in this particular case when Nashville sent Maher out on loan at the beginning of the USL season, letting the Indiana University grad begin his professional career a level below MLS. The long-term expectations for Maher are high. The Year One thought process didn’t really include him much at all.
3 appearances • 134 minutes
0 goals, 0 shots
0 assists, 0 key passes
37/45 passing (82.2% • 78.3% expected)
7.5% of touches on-field
+0.13 Goals added per 96 minutes versus average centerback
|Jack Maher 2020|
|Dribbling G+||Fouling G+||Interrupting G+||Passing G+||Receiving G+||Shooting G+|
Maher was initially expected to spend the entire season on loan, but a confluence of circumstances led to his being ready for MLS play earlier in his rookie season than expected – he returned to NSC during the return-to-play protocols prior to MLS is Back – and he worked his way up to the No. 2 backup centerback by late in the regular season (with Jalil Anibaba and Eric Miller both getting a bit of circumstantial use ahead of him).
He managed three appearances, two of them starts. The sub-on experience was a no-win situation (NSC was down a man and then went down a goal through no fault of Maher’s own shortly after he entered the field), and the lone major downer was a late-season injury.
Indeed, it looked like he was on a stardom track before he left the penultimate regular-season game with a non-contact right knee ailment after just 28 minutes. He was listed on the official injury report for the remainder of the year. It’s unclear the severity of the injury (based on the timing, it never became relevant), but assuming non-ACL surgery – and the back of that knee is what was being treated, so it’s unlikely to be an ACL – it was a damper on the end of his 2020 season.
How close to full strength Maher is to begin the season will go a long way toward determining the more immediate future. If he’s 100% after the offseason, there’s a pretty good chance he’s the top backup CB. Anibaba is another year older (and preferably available for use as a utility player rather than strictly CB), Miguel Nazarit didn’t play and is almost certain to be away from NSC for at least this season, and Miller is a right back who was forced into occasional contributions as an RCB. Maher should be able to work his way into being first guy off the bench.
Of course, there were precious few minutes available for a first-off-bench CB in 2020 anyway, and with both Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney extended long-term, the expectation is that grooming a guy like Maher for a starting role doesn’t have a finish line until the 2023 season at the earliest.
However, it’s easy to forget 1) how rare ironman seasons really are for field players (Romney was one in 2020), and 2) that next season should have a very different set of demands for players with an expected return to a 34-game regular-season schedule, the US Open Cup, and likely some player absences with a Summer filled with USMNT and USYNT events. If Zimmerman’s called in for the Gold Cup, there’s playing time. If Maher’s called in for the Olympics (unlikely but possible), he’ll likely be getting minutes, but for his country, not his club.
So what did Maher lack in his brief 2020 appearances that he should add to his game to continue progressing? Aside from the typical adjustment to speed of play, adding mass to his lower body to prevent getting overpowered (and to become a bit of a bully himself) is the biggest one. He’s already a very nice CB from a technical perspective, and more two-footed than the vast majority of players at the position – mini-anecdote time, I actually asked his college coach, “he’s a lefty, yeah?” and was told he got that question plenty, but Jack’s right-footed – simply continuing what he’s already capable of there with a larger sample size will probably put him in the upper tier of the position from that perspective. Complementing that with the physical and athletic attributes to be an elite defender will make him a well-rounded and high-level defender in short order.