Alistair Johnston photo via Zoom by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
Most MLS SuperDraft picks outside of the top handful of selections are considered low-value. Mike Jacobs sees it differently – and got some payoff in 2020.
Other editions: No minutes and gone • No minutes and back • Jimmy Medranda • Brayan Beckeles • Handwalla Bwana • Jack Maher • David Accam • Alan Winn • Matt LaGrassa • Eric Miller • Derrick Jones • Jhonder Cádiz • Taylor Washington • Abu Danladi • Jalil Anibaba • Dominique Badji • Daniel Ríos • Tah Brian Anunga • Alex Muyl • Hany Mukhtar • Aníbal Godoy • Alistair Johnston • Randall Leal • Dax McCarty • Dan Lovitz • Walker Zimmerman • Dave Romney • Joe Willis
Johnston was the 11th overall MLS SuperDraft pick, and while it’s possible to find hidden gems in the Draft, the expectations for guys outside the top 5-8 are limited, and particularly so during their rookie years.
Of course, there were a number of reasons to believe that Johnston’s future – even his immediate future – may be a little brighter. For starters, some projections had him valued as a top-five pick in the first place. Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs traded up when he was still available at No. 11 (indicating strong faith in him as a player), and of course it’s worth noting that Jacobs and his staff put the most stock and the most scouting resources into college soccer as perhaps anyone in MLS. Lastly, Nashville was building a team from scratch, so the established starters and solidified roster spots weren’t there in the first place.
All those caveats given, some minor contributions on the pitch for Johnston, a few bright flashes indicating a bright future, and maybe blossoming into a platoon-starter sort of player by the end of his rookie year seemed like the upper bound of expectations.
21 appearances • 1801 minutes
0 goals, 4 shots (0.41 xG), 3 on-target
0 assists, 16 key passes (1.82 xA)
688/908 passing (75.8% • 75.4% expected)
9.9% of touches on-field
+0.08 Goals added per 96 minutes versus replacement fullback
|Alistair Johnston 2020|||||||||
|Dribbling G+||Fouling G+||Interrupting G+||Passing G+||Receiving G+||Shooting G+|
It’s, uh, very safe to say that Johnston exceeded expectations. Some of that was the fortune of circumstance (or silver lining, at least). A five-month gap in his rookie year allowed him to get up to speed as a pro without games passing him by. The reason for that five-month gap included a global pandemic of a respiratory illness that unfortunately struck one of the other players at his position group, Brayan Beckeles. Another of the players at the position, Eric Miller, struggled more than expected in early appearances.
Put all that together, and Johnston was a starter by the fourth game of his rookie year. More than that, he was more than “just a guy” out there. He had his individual moments of struggle – as everyone did – both offensively and defensively, but he very much belonged as an every-game starter for one of the league’s best defenses.
However, he was also prone to a rookie mistake or two: a red card (second-yellow) in 56 minutes against Sporting Kansas City played a fairly major role in the eventual 2-1 loss for the Boys in Gold. Even a draw there would have seen NSC end up a position higher in the table for the playoffs (and with a first-round bye). Obviously the butterfly-effect outcomes can’t be pinned on Johnston. But noting areas of improvement starts with advocating for avoiding that type of mistake.
Getting into the lineup at all is n the A/B range for a rookie who wasn’t Nashville’s first pick in the Draft. Settling in as basically a lock-starter ratchets things waaaaaay upwards. The mistakes made when ascending to that height can only bring him back down to Earth so much when the defense performed at an elite level in his presence.
While there were some holes in Johnston’s game, a lot of that can be chalked up to a kid playing his first professional season. You’d have to think the experience of more than a half-season on the pitch would have led to wiser play against SKC. Some play-to-play improvements can be expected as well, along with the physical growth of having soccer as a job, rather than a smaller aspect of college life.
Getting a little bit more luck would have made last year’s traditional stats look much more impressive: he underachieved his expected assists by nearly two, and had a dangerous shot in his first MLS start that would have made for pretty nice counting numbers. Some incremental improvement in the margins in the rest of his game, and a breakout year on the national stage (you could fairly say he’s already broken out locally) beckons.
The A-minus grade seems a little generous, given Johnston’s Big Mistake played a pretty significant role in one loss. But it’s scaled with expectations, and he exceeded them in Year One – while resetting the bar at a much, much higher lever going into Year Two.