Why Lukas MacNaughton could be the big winner of surprise trade between TFC and Nashville
Lukas MacNaughton became the latest Canadian player to leave Toronto FC this week, as the 28-year-old centre back was traded to Nashville SC for veteran striker CJ Sapong on Tuesday.
Heading to Nashville along with up to $200 000 in GAM, it’s a chance for MacNaughton to hit the reset button with a new club, after a mixed year and a bit in Toronto.
After becoming a key fixture at the back in 2022, those minutes have been harder to come by in 2023, as TFC shored up their centre back position with some big acquisitions.
Therefore, with TFC needing more goals in their lineup, especially at the striker position, it opened the door for MacNaughton to be moved, allowing TFC to get a new face up front.
It remains to be seen whether or not the move will work out for TFC’s offence, as Sapong is 34 and hasn’t scored since last May, but it’s certainly a huge opportunity for MacNaughton, as he heads to a club that has a reputation for getting the most out of their players.
As a result, here’s a look at why he could be the big winner in this trade, as he looks to follow in the footsteps of Jacob Shaffelburg, Luca Petrasso and more as the next Canadian to find some success away from TFC.
What happened in Toronto?
Following a standout three seasons in the CPL, it felt like MacNaughton was primed for a move as 2022 came around. Fresh off winning a North Star Shield with Pacific FC, while also making a run to the semi-finals of the Canadian Championship, MacNaughton was a huge part of all of that success as a key anchor at the back.
Especially given that he’d impressed in a pair of games against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC in that Canadian Championship run, it showed that he could potentially play at that level, opening the door for a potential move upwards.
Turns out, it’d be TFC who’d give him that chance, as he joined their preseason camp at the beginning of 2022, before signing a contract through 2023, with options for 2024 and 2025.
After 59 games with Pacific, it was a huge move for MacNaughton, who was a prime example of why creating these pathways is so important. Before Pacific, he’d started working as an architect, and would not have gone pro if not for the creation of the CPL.
Yet, now, he was starting the year with one of the biggest teams in MLS, as Toronto looked to put a lean 2021 behind them with a rebuilt team, led by new head coach, Bob Bradley. It was unsure how much he’d play, but just being there was a good step, giving him a chance to take that next step.
Which he'd certainly take, as he’d end up playing almost 1800 minutes across 25 games in MLS play, doing well to carve out a spot for himself. Along with some standout play in the Canadian Championship, playing twice and scoring in the final as TFC lost the 2022 tournament to Vancouver, while also starting and going the distance as TFC won the postponed 2020 edition over Forge, it marked an overall solid year personally for MacNaughton.
GOAL 🦉#TFClive fans, allow us to introduce you to...— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) July 27, 2022
... #CANPL BANGERS ONLY ™️
Lukas MacNaughton SCORES the equalizer vs. #VWFC #CanChamp | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/qtKxUflXmY
The same couldn’t be said for TFC, however, as they finished second-last in MLS’s overall standings, conceding the third-most goals in the league with 66. Along with their Canadian Championship woes, as while the 2020 trophy was nice, losing the 2022 crown meant not qualifying for the Champions League, it was a tough year for the club.
As a result, they beefed up their defence this offseason, bringing in veteran MLS centre back Matt Hedges and Norwegian Sigurd Rosted, who quickly became the preferred pair this season, doing well to help TFC get settled defensively. Because of that, MacNaughton’s minutes quickly evaporated, as he fell back in the rotation, meaning he didn’t play until a recent injury to Hedges.
Then, not aiding his cause was that after TFC allowed just seven goals in their first six games of the year, they conceded six across the three MacNaughton featured in recently, as he was unable to fill the shoes of Hedges.
Therefore, having fallen down the depth chart even further after those performances, that made him expendable, as TFC then elected to make this move for Sapong, while then making a subsequent trade for Inter Miami centre back Aimé Mabika to not lose depth there.
Chance for a fresh start in Nashville?
As a result, that’s now led MacNaughton to the Music City. There, he joins an interesting group, as Nashville have been one of the league’s most solid teams since joining as an expansion team in 2020.
Led by 2022 MLS MVP Hany Mukthar, as well as head coach Gary Smith (and former Toronto FC attacker Jacob Shaffelburg!), Nashville are a team that is disciplined and organized, while eager to punish any error at the other end.
For a centre back, that’s a pretty ideal scenario to head into, which is why this move is so intriguing for MacNaughton, ashe’s heading to a very different team than the one that he’s leaving at TFC.
Last season, TFC allowed the second-most xG in MLS with 1.66 per game, and allowed a third-worst 14.47 shots against, highlighting their defensive struggles.
To give credit to Rosted and Hedges, they’ve improved that a lot, as TFC’s xG against has dropped to 1.21 this year, which is very good. For comparison, Nashville is allowing just 0.99 xG a game this year, and averaged a still-solid 1.22 xG against per game last year, as they’re very strong defensively.
Yet, despite that improvement, a key issue still remains for TFC - their defensive play in midfield, as they’re not fully equipped, especially at the #6 position, to play as aggressively offensively as they sometimes do without leaving space going the other way.
An older team, they’re at their best defensively when they can get numbers behind the ball, getting organized in a 4-4-2. Yet, with the presence of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, they often play on the front foot offensively, as they should, but that can sometimes come at a defensive cost.
Therefore, a lot of their defensive improvement so far this season has actually come as Insigne missed almost two months with injury, which forced TFC to play a bit more conservatively. With the Italian’s recent return, it’s expected they return to more of their freewheeling ways in the attack.
As a result, it’s interesting to note that in his first start back, against the Philadelphia Union, Toronto were torn apart in transition, as they pushed higher up the field, as expected. That left TFC looking a lot more like the Toronto of 2022 versus the stingy defensive outfit that had emerged in 2023, as the Union ran through their midfield for their goals.
Unfortunately, MacNaughton suffered the brunt of that, as he struggled to keep up with the pace of the Union’s transition, yet, it’s worth noting that he’s never been fully suited to that sort of style.
Comedy own goal from the unfortunate Lukas MacNaughton in the Philadelphia Union vs Toronto game. pic.twitter.com/nzc6W3IHLl— James Nalton (@JDNalton) April 23, 2023
At Pacific, he was at his best when he was able to get behind the ball to defend, instead of defending on the run, as they did so well in that 2021 season.
Last year in MLS, that also continued to be the case for MacNaughton, as he was in the top 25 percent of all MLS centre backs in blocks, clearances and aerial duels won, but in the bottom 25 percent when it came to tackles, and in the middle of the pack when it came to interceptions.
The good news? Nashville should be a perfect location for him in that regard.
A part of the reason why they’ve been so successful defensively is that they are very disciplined off the ball, playing an organized 4-4-2.
From there, they don’t often throw numbers wildly forward, and are committed to a rigorous double pivot, usually occupied by two of Aníbal Godoy, Dax McCarthy or Sean Davis, whose goal is to limit space. For comparison, TFC employs just Michael Bradley as a defensive midfielder, and while the veteran is still a very good defender, he doesn’t have the legs to keep up with some of the running demands that are placed on him in TFC's aggressive system.
What that means for Nashville, however, is that a lot of their defending comes when they’re set, as they don’t allow teams to get much going in transition. That’s made life easier for Nashville’s core of defenders, led by four-time MLS Best XI centre back, Walker Zimmerman, who is a key anchor at the back.
Speaking of Zimmerman, he’s also a key example of why this move could work for MacNaughton. Looking at his stats from the last three years, he’s ranked in the bottom 50 to 25% for tackles among MLS centre backs, but is among the best when it comes to intercepting, clearances and aerial duels, much like MacNaughton.
Therefore, while it’s unfair to compare MacNaughton to Zimmerman, that shows that MacNaughton’s profile should fit in at the centre back position for his new club, which is intriguing.
Safe to say, the idea of a potential MacNaughton and Zimmerman partnership could be exciting, for many reasons.
Lukas MacNaughton with Gary Smith?— Peter Galindo (@GalindoPW) April 27, 2023
When you produce this in a disastrous #TFCLive side in your first MLS season, then join a club known for its defensive solidity, you've got my attention.#EveryoneN pic.twitter.com/qpmFjSRWuN
What could this mean for Canadian aspirations?
Now, MacNaughton will look to carve out a role in that Nashville defence. He’s unlikely to start right away, as Zimmerman has mostly been paired with Jack Maher, but given that Zimmerman is a USMNT regular, he could stand to miss a lot of games this summer, and Maher could be due some rest at some stage.
Along with the fact that the summer schedule is busy for MLS teams, especially for a team like Nashville that remains in the Open Cup, minutes should be there for MacNaughton to grab.
Which if he’s able to do, could be interesting for his National Team hopes. Already on the fringes of the Canadian squad, as shown when he was called into the team’s extended roster ahead of the World Cup, his emergence would be crucial for the team’s right-footed centre back depth.
After Steven Vitória, things are pretty wide-open for Canada there, as Joel Waterman is next up given that Doneil Henry has been dogged by injuries. From there, however, options are relatively limited beyond Kyle Hiebert, with most of Canada’s options being left-footed.
Because of that, MacNaughton could certainly throw his name into the hat with some strong performances. Canada’s always looking for more centre backs, and having one do well on one of the best defensive teams in MLS would certainly help him in that case.
Yet, that shows why this move only has upside for MacNaughton.
At TFC, he’d fallen down the pecking order, and was playing in a system that doesn’t necessarily suit his strengths. At Nashville, however, they fit his playstyle to a tee, and with a shortage of centre back depth, especially after the season-ending injury to Nick DePuy, there should be opportunities for him to play.
So look for him to grab this role, and then continue his unlikely push up the soccer ladder, having already ground his way from architect to the CPL to where he is now today.