Nashville SC

The Big Questions: Alistair Johnston traded

The Big Questions: Alistair Johnston traded #EveryoneN #TodosUnnidos #MLS

Nashville SC has sold a fan favorite! What does it all mean? Is Mike Jacobs an evil genius, a chaotic neutral, or chaotic good? Most of all, why is this happening?

I’ll go to consistent friend-of-the-blog (and pod) Chris Hoal for a few of the big questions here:

1. What is the price of replacing a top-tier RB?

First, it’s important that we define our terms here, and to put it in simple terms, calling Johnston a “top-tier RB” might be a bit of a stretch. He’s a very nice player, and a rather good one, no questions asked. but to determine if the price is fair, we have to establish ground rules about the quality of player being replaced.

According to American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added metric, Johnston was a +0.04 player as a fullback. The metric is not perfect, and certainly requires context (which I’ll provide momentarily here), but that’s an approximately-average player. Aaron Herrera (+2.95) and Julian Gressel (+2.94) of RSL and DC United, respectively, are top-tier RBs. Johnston comes in No. 31 of all players at the position in 2021, No. 29 among those with more than 1k minutes. The rest of the Nashville backline includes Walker Zimmerman (at +3.50, one of the top overall G+ players nationally, not just among CBs or defenders), Dan Lovitz (+0.98), and Dave Romney (-0.32, in large part because you don’t rack up big scores playing between the other two). Johnston wasn’t an obvious negative outlier in 2021 – but he wasn’t an obvious positive one either, which he’d have to be for some sort of indispensability status.

As for the going rate for a top fullback… one need look no further than last week’s Expansion Draft, when LAFC right back/CB Tristan Blackmon went to Vancouver Whitecaps for $475,000 total GAM (with Charlotte serving as an intermediate step). While I personally don’t rate Blackmon that highly, he’s a very similar player to Johnston positionally (not quite a true fullback, but not a true CB either), and in the greater MLS world, he’s more highly regarded than Johnston. To more than double the haul he commanded is massive. Atlanta United’s Franco Escobar went to Inter Miami for $600,000 GAM (or less, since some of that is in performance incentives). He’s universally more-regarded than Johnston.

Mike Jacobs made out like a bandit here.

2. Has GAM inflated to where 1m doesn’t go as far as it used to?

Certainly there’s been GAM inflation – the $950,000 (plus performance incentives) for Walker Zimmerman was an unheard-of number for a defender when Nashville spent it, now Johnston’s trade is big, but not going to stop the MLS presses – and that plays a role in this value.

Nonetheless, as you can see above, you can get really good players in trades for way less than a million bucks. GAM goes as far as you’re able to convince a trade partner to stretch it. While Jacobs is not perfect when it comes to making deals, there’s no question that when he does make them (particularly intra-MLS), the money coming in always seems to be a bit higher a number than that going out.

3. Would NSC have profited more if they held onto him and waited for the “big” sale out of MLS?

No, I don’t think so, in part because you’ve answered your own question here…

4. …or is the thought that since there are caps to GAM from player sales – (1m) that getting the “ 1m GAM max” now, AND getting a sell on fee later, is actually maximizing Ali’s value?

Selling a player abroad works in real-world dollars. If Nashville sells Luke Haakenson to Bayern Munich (a rumor we’re hearing more and more*), that exchange happens in cash. Bayern pays Euros to some bank somewhere, and John Ingram receives dollars from that bank somewhere else. Per MLS rules, even if Haakenson is sold for $18.5 million (the number we’ve consistently heard attached to this very-existent rumor**), Nashville can convert only $1.05 million of it into General Allocation Money. The rest goes into Ingram’s pocket – presumably but not necessarily re-invested into non-roster portions of the Nashville SC business.

* we are not hearing this rumor
** ibid

SO, were Nashville to sell Alistair Johnston abroad, rather than trading him to CF Montreal, the maximum amount being left on the table in practical roster-building terms is $50,000 General Allocation Money. First, that’s not very much, considering the total value of the transaction. Second, getting $1 million today is more valuable than getting $1.05 million a year in the future (“time value of money” doesn’t apply in the traditional sense because GAM can’t be “invested” in a traditional sense, but the concept applies nonetheless).

Tack on that Nashville receives 10% of what Montreal sells Johnston for – if and when he is sold – and NSC is getting value from a past investment without having to put any further resources toward it. Whether or not Johnston’s overseas transfer fee (keep in mind his grandparents are Irish, so he qualifies for Euro status in most European leagues, making a transfer easier) can be converted into GAM – certainly Nashville didn’t make the deal on the assumption it could – that’s good business. If all 10% can be converted to Allocation money (I would expect that MLS caps it at that $50,000 GAM “gap”) and the fee is more than $500,000 for an overseas transfer – as it will be, in order for Montreal to sell – Jacobs has gotten creative with the rules in a ways that’s impressive, if unintentional.

Other considerations

As I noted in response No. 1 above, Johnston… may not be worth $1 million on the open (MLS-internal) market. However, for CFMTL, bringing in a Canadian Men’s National Team regular has value that can’t be quantified in Goals Added terms – particularly in a World Cup year.

From Nashville’s perspective, there’s also the little matter that Johnston was making a rookie contract number ($73k), and has played well enough to be due for a big raise. Nashville likes the guy a lot! But to get a major trade windfall for him and not be responsible for the (deserved) raise is the quintessential moneyball move.

For Ali, he gets not only a better payday, but to be playing in his home country (at a stage of the global pandemic when the border is about to get a lot less permeable), to have smoother access to CanMNT camps in a year where he’s playing for a WorldCup roster slot, and to play in a system that’s more directly comparable to the one he plays with Canada, in a role that’s exactly what he does in the Canadian system.

It’s a win all around, aside from the emotional aspect for both Johnston (who has truly grown to love Nashville and the fans) and the fans (who will have to go back to relying on NashSevereWX for their rain-delay updates).

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