Why trading Alistair Johnston makes sense for Nashville

Nashville SC traded away a fan favorite for the first time in their MLS history. Alistair Johnston, drafted by the club in 2020 before becoming a fixture in the lineup, was sent to CF Montréal for an hefty $1,000,000 in General Allocation Money, plus 10% of a future transfer fee yesterday. It’s a new experience for this young fanbase, but from a roster building perspective, it makes a lot of sense.

Where does the Johnston trade rank?

$1 million is the highest sum ever traded for a fullback in MLS history, and one of the highest overall trade figures in recent MLS history.

PLAYERCLUB FROMCLUB TOGAMDATE
Alex RingNYCFCAustin FC$1,250,000Dec 17, 2021
Lewis MorganInter Miami CFNew York Red Bulls$1,200,000Dec 9, 2021
Jeremy EbobissePortland TimbersSan Jose Earthquakes$1,167,000Aug 5, 2021
Walker ZimmermanLAFCNashville SC$1,100,000Feb 11, 2020
Frankie AmayaFC CincinnatiNew York Red Bulls$1,075,000*Apr 20, 2021
Alistair JohnstonNashville SCCF Montréal$1,000,000Dec 27, 2021
Mark-Anthony KayeLAFCColorado Rapids$1,000,000Jul 27, 2021
Djordje MihailovicChicago FireCF Montréal$1,000,000Dec 17, 2021
Includes performance-based incentives that may not have been triggered

In the last two seasons, only four players have been traded for more GAM than Johnston. That number drops to three if Frankie Amaya’s sub-par 2021 performance didn’t trigger his $125k in performance based incentives. This puts the Johnston deal in elite company.

Is Johnston worth $1 million?

Johnston was an excellent performer in his two seasons in Nashville, and has become an even more integral piece of the Canadian national team. He’s a solid defender in MLS, still quite young at just 23, and the type of player who can be a core player for most MLS sides for over a decade. So why trade him?

Nashville General Manager Mike Jacobs has long preached a philosophy of “valuing the undervalued”, and the flip side of that coin is moving on players who may be overvalued. While Johnston was important for Nashville and would have continued to be a key player had he remained in Music City, a million in GAM is is firmly in the “overvalued” category. This is no slight to Johnston, but from a business perspective, it’s a fact.

American Soccer Analysis‘s “Goals Added” metric isn’t a perfect measuring tool, but for this exercise it is useful to get a snapshot of a player’s overall contribution to a team. By looking at a players G+ above replacement in the two years prior to their trade, it becomes clearer why Nashville accepted Montreal’s offer.

PLAYERGAMG+ IN PRIOR 2 SEASONS
Mark-Anthony Kaye$1,000,0009.02
Alex Ring$1,250,0006.62
Lewis Morgan$1,200,0006.21
Walker Zimmerman$1,100,0005.14
Jeremy Ebobisse$1,167,0004.17
Djordje Mihailovic$1,000,0003.55
Alistair Johnston$1,000,0002.80
Frankie Amaya$1,075,0001.13

Aside from just the GAM, Nashville will take 10% of any transfer fee Montreal receive for Johnston. It’s a good bet that Johnston will move overseas sooner rather than later. He’s a young Canadian international with a European passport who can adapt to multiple systems. Nashville should see their end of the deal get even sweeter.

Again, this isn’t to say that Johnston is a bad player; he’s quite the opposite. However, ASA ranks him as the 33rd-best fullback in MLS over his two seasons in the league. Turning a SuperDraft pick towards the end of a rookie contract worth $73,000 a year into one of the five biggest trades in the last two seasons is undeniably good business for Nashville SC.

Tristan Blackmon has played a similar role as Johnston in MLS, a hybrid right back and center back who’s comfortable in possession but not a dominant lockdown defender. His G+ numbers are very comparable to Johnston’s, and while he hasn’t broken into the US Men’s National Team, they have similar MLS profiles.

Blackmon was just traded from Charlotte FC to Vancouver Whitecaps for $475,000 in GAM after being selected in the Expansion Draft. It’s a significant amount of allocation money, but as a comparable player, he brought in $525,000 less than Johnston.

Franco Escobar has been a more important player in MLS, and while he’s three years older, he was just traded from Atlanta United to Inter Miami for $600,000 in GAM. He brought in $400,000 less than Johnston.

Going back to 2020, Julian Gressel was traded to DC United for $750,000 in Targeted Allocation Money. Gressel was arguably the best right back in MLS at the time, and is a much more consistent producer from an attacking perspective. He brought in $250,00 less than Johnston.

From Nashville’s perspective, Montreal overvalued Johnston, and they took advantage.

So what will Nashville do with all that GAM?

This is the million dollar question. Nashville have always prioritized GAM, but they’ve acquired a copious amount this offseason.

But why?

Jacobs has called GAM the most valuable asset in MLS. It can be traded for players. It can be traded for other assets, such as international spots, draft picks, or higher priority in the waiver order. And it can be used to buy down existing contracts to free up space in a club’s salary budget.

I expect we see a solid mix of all these options from Nashville. After trading Johnston and Dylan Nealis, there’s a clear need for not just depth at right back, but likely a starter. Nashville have more than enough spending power not only replace Johnston, but acquire several starting quality players from around MLS. While Johnston will be missed by the fans, the moves Nashville can make should mean they won’t miss him on the field.

Additionally, Nashville have the flexibility now to make sure they can hold onto their core. Walker Zimmerman signed a contract extension after his first season in Nashville, but his performances for club and country are increasing his value and leading to increased European interest. Nashville have the flexibility to give him an improved contract while keeping his budget charge to a minimum.

By trading Alistair Johnston for a massive profit, Nashville have added flexibility to their roster building process, both for this offseason and going forward. They’ve lost a strong player, but are poised to be a better team in 2022.

Comments

  1. Excellent article. I assumed that was the case with this trade and though he was a favorite player the trade makes sense. Thanks for the numbers backup, that helped make more sense of it.

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