Nashville SC posted one of the best defensive records for an expansion team in the history of MLS and Alistair Johnson played a key role in that as a rookie. One year later, the Canadian fullback is aiming to up his production this season and help Nashville go even further in 2021.
Johnston jumped right into Gary Smith’s squad last season, after being the No. 11 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. After a strange year, which saw Nashville and the rest of the league’s 25 clubs miss three months of the regular season due to COVID-19, Johnston emerged from obscurity to become one of the more promising young fullbacks in MLS.
As he prepares for training camp ahead of the upcoming season, Johnston is focused on making the necessary improvements to help Nashville take the next step from expansion surprise to title contender.
“We put in a great season defensively and the goal will be for myself and the team to excel at that once again,” Johnston told SBI. “The guys up top it starts with them to put in the pressure defensively and also force chances offensively. We have a lot of talented guys on this roster who have played several years in this league.. Dax McCarty, Walker Zimmerman, Dave Romney and so on.”
He’s entered into this group and made a very very good impression from the very outset,” said Smith about Johnston during the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. “I think that starts with the way that he approaches every day at work. He’s a very professional young man, looks after himself. He’s very focused. He works and trains as he plays. And therefore I believe his game has improved incrementally because of that … He’s got a very bright future.”
While many first-round picks had to head out on loan or watch from the sidelines, Johnston was right in the action as a first-year professional. The 22-year-old made 21 combined league appearances for Nashville SC, emerging as a regular starter on a defense that allowed the third-fewest goals in MLS.
Johnston may have been the youngest member of Smith’s starting backline, but it didn’t stop him from delivering a strong first impression for the eventual MLS Eastern Conference Semifinalists. He credits Smith and plenty of his older teammates for giving him the confidence to continue pushing forward as a young player.
“I’ve been fortunate to join a club with so many top professionals, who are there to help you every step of the way,” Johnston said. “You have guys like Dax and Walker who have logged a lot of minutes in this league and are guys who lead by example on the field. Working with them and countless others helped make this a positive first season for me and I think as a team we will only get better if we continue to gel together as a unit.”
“Gary [Smith] was a coach I didn’t know a lot about, but I quickly researched everything I could on him when I got drafted. One thing about him is he is a strong leader and he is there to help make you better as a player. Even when we missed time due to the pandemic, him and the coaching staff were sending me practice plans to do to get better. They all gave great feedback then and continue to do so this offseason. It’s been great working with them.”
Johnston is still learning the right back position after originally switching from central midfield during his college days at Wake Forest University. The former midfielder played one season at St. John’s University before making the move to right back, providing a new challenge for himself in the ACC.
Since then, he’s quickly impressed in MLS and also got the notice of Canada Men’s National Team head coach John Herdman. Johnston earned his first senior call up to Canada’s January camp and got his first taste of working with Herdman and the ever-growing list of players in the pool.
With a busy 2021 schedule coming for Canada, which includes World Cup Qualifying and the Summer Olympics, Johnston is eager to stay in the mix and prove he belongs with the National Team.
“As a Canadian kid growing up playing soccer, it’s obviously my dream to one day put on that red jersey,” Johnston said. I was kind of always overlooked by provincial teams and national teams, but it only added fuel to get better and get noticed. Being able to get that first call into camp was a moment I will never forget and getting to work with a talented group of players only has made me hungrier to get back soon.”
“We have a golden generation here in Canada with guys like Alphonso [Davies] and Jonathan [David] both leading the way in Europe. I think it’s an exciting time to be a Canadian player because we have several competitions this year and we want to show we belong. Concacaf as a whole is improving and I think it only makes it better in the long run. Mexico and U.S. have great teams, but its way more competitive than maybe it was in the past. Everyone will try and make a run at success.”
Nashville shocked many teams in the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2020, but will be on the radar of every club in 2021 after impressing in limited time last season. Johnston is expected to stay in the mix for the starting right back role, a challenge he is excited to get underway with in the coming weeks.
“I’m probably my own biggest critic, for sure, so I was working out this offseason trying to prepare for bigger things in 2021,” Johnston said. “I can’t really complain with how the rookie season went though, I was part of a pretty good, solid backline and a good run in the playoffs. We feel we could’ve done more and competed for a title so that will surely be on the agenda this season.”
“I am still young enough where I know mistakes can happen, but I am aiming to be a leader for the team this season. I took a lot of information and experience in last season and overall that will only make me ready to go once the games get underway.”