Nashville SC had a rough start to life in Major League Soccer, surviving the pandemic lockdown only to have to withdraw from the MLS is Back Tournament due to a rash of COVID-19 cases.
Like his teammates, Canadian rookie Alistair Johnston endured the bad times and helped the expansion club qualify for the playoffs, making a name for himself at fullback in the process.
"it was a tough start but I think everyone's pretty happy with where we're at right now," said the 22-year-old from Aurora, Ont. "Hopefully we're only at the beginning and it's only going to get better."
Nashville (8-7-8) hosts fellow newcomer Inter Miami CF (7-13-3) on Friday at Nissan Stadium — with a limited number of fans on hand — in an Eastern Conference play-in round match. Nashville enters the playoffs having lost just once in its last seven outings (4-1-2).
The game is of interest to second-place Toronto FC, which will face seventh-place Nashville in the next round if it dispatches 10th-place Miami.
Johnston made his MLS debut off the bench Aug 12 against FC Dallas. The five-foot-11 170-pounder started four days later, also against Dallas, as the two clubs made up a scheduling shortfall caused by their withdrawal from the MLS is Back Tournament.
He has started 14 of 19 games since with 18 appearances in all. Johnston led all Canadians with U.S.-based MLS teams with 1,366 minutes played this season.
"He's entered into this group and made a very very good impression from the very outset," said Nashville coach Gary Smith, who led the Colorado Rapids to the 2010 MLS Cup in Toronto. "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."
For Smith, Johnston also took his opportunity when given. And he has learned from those around him, including 2020 MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman.
Zimmerman partners Dave Romney at centre back with Daniel Lovitz, a Toronto and Montreal alumnus, at left fullback and Johnston at right fullback.
"He's been an absolute rock," Johnston said of Zimmerman. "For me, it's been so easy playing right back with him being my centre back right beside me on the right side. It's made my transition to the MLS a lot easier than I feel like it is for a lot of rookies."
With veteran midfielders Anibal Godoy and Dax McCarty helping shield the backline and standout 'keeper Joe Willis, Nashville allowed 22 goals in 23 games this season, third-fewest in the league, and only two goals more than league-leading Philadelphia.
Nashville posted a goals-against average of 0.96 goals per game, the best ever by an expansion club, and tied for the league lead with nine clean sheets. That stingy defence helped make up for an offence that ranked 24th out of 26 teams at 1.04 goals a game.
All that came despite a start that saw the fledgling team lose its first two games prior to the lockdown. Things got worse off the field when the league returned to action at the MLS is Back Tournament when Nashville followed FC Dallas in being forced to withdraw.
Nashville said one of its players had tested positive upon arrival July 1 at the league's host hotel in the Orlando area. Another eight followed suit within a few days.
The players were locked down in their hotel rooms, getting tested daily.
"It was definitely a scary time … It was kind of like 'Is it me next? Do I have it?'" Johnston said.
The quarantine continued as more players tested positive, preventing the team from travelling home. They eventually spent close to two weeks in their hotel rooms.
"But I tell you what, I can't complain," said Johnston, who escaped the virus. "At the end of the day we were fed, we had a place to stay, we had the best medical staff all around at all times checking up on us.
"Sure it didn't seem like a great situation at the time when we were in it but at the end of the day it could have been a lot worse."
Johnston believes all the bumps in the road "added a lot of fuel" when the team finally resumed play. He used the time to work on his game and become accustomed to the pro ranks.
His Aug. 12 debut was marked by an impromptu haircut in the dressing room by veteran Honduran defender Brayan Beckeles.
"We've got a pretty crazy locker-room to say the least," Johnston, who subsequently shaved his head to cover up Beckeles' enthusiastic scissors work, said cheerfully.
Taken 11th overall in the January MLS SuperDraft, the Wake Forest product was one of four Canadians to go in the top 20.
Vancouver chose attacking midfielder Ryan Raposo (Hamilton, Ont.) with the fourth pick. Syracuse defender Nyal Higgins (Ajax, Ont.) went 19th to Toronto FC and Connecticut forward Dayonn Harris (Milton, Ont.) was selected 20th by Real Salt Lake.
All four first-rounders played club soccer at Vaughan SC in the Toronto area. Raposo, Johnston and Harris also played for League 1 Ontario's Vaughan Azzurri against the CPL's HFX Wanderers FC in the 2019 Canadian Championship.
Born in Vancouver, Johnston was four when the family moved to Montreal and seven when it settled in Aurora. He was 16 when he made his debut in the Canadian youth program at an under-18 camp in 2015.
INTER MIAMI CF (7-13-3) AT NASHVILLE SC (8-7-8)
Friday, 9 p.m. ET at Nissan Stadium.
THIS SEASON: Nashville had the edge in regular-season meetings, winning 1-0 Aug. 30 at Nissan Stadium before a scoreless draw Sept. 6 in Fort Lauderdale.
HOME AND AWAY: Nashville was 4-2-5 at home this season while Inter Miami was 2-8-1 on the road.
ROAD TO PLAYOFFS: Nashville booked its ticket on Oct. 28, becoming the sixth expansion side to reach the post-season in its inaugural season. Inter Miami joined the party on the final day of the regular season when it beat FC Cincinnati 2-1.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press