It seems Nashville SC had a goal in mind heading into its first MLS SuperDraft.
The expansion side selected two defenders and a goalkeeper Thursday with its three first round picks, adding depth to a defensive unit that will be tested early and often in its first Major League Soccer season.
With the club’s first pick, which was second overall, Nashville selected Jack Maher, a centerback from Indiana. The club then traded up to acquire the 11th overall pick from the Colorado Rapids and took fullback Alistair Johnston from Wake Forest. Two picks later, Nashville traded up again, this time with the New England Revolution, to add Elliot Panicco, a goalkeeper from UNC-Charlotte.
The draft this year was done via conference call, so most teams made their selections at their own facilities, with laptops in front of them or a generic backdrop behind them.
Mike Jacobs, Nashville’s general manager, opted to load up a bus of supporters and drive to Maher’s home to welcome him in person as Nashville’s first-ever draft pick.
“This is really special. I’m so glad Nashville picked me. It means the world,” Maher said. “This is just a stepping stone for the team as a whole.”
— Nashville SC (@NashvilleSC) January 9, 2020
A Generation Adidas signee, the 20-year-old Maher is a native of Caseyville, Illinois and spent two seasons playing for Indiana. During that time, he started in 46 games and helped the Hoosiers win a pair of Big Ten titles. At 6-foot-3, he’s shown to be a threat in the box, too, tallying four goals and two assists this past year.
On the ESPN live broadcast of the draft, MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle called Maher “maybe the most pro-ready guy in this draft” and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said Maher was “very mature for his age.” He could contribute to Nashville’s backline right away.
A versatile 5-foot-11 prospect, Johnston mostly played fullback at Wake Forest, but has also shown the ability to play higher along the wing and as a central midfielder. Before going to Wake Forest as a transfer, he played in 36 games in two seasons for St. John’s, totaling 10 goals and four assists. His next two seasons at Wake Forest, he tallied six goals and 10 assists in 43 appearances. Johnston also helped Wake Forest to the College Cup semifinals this past season.
“They play the best soccer in the college game,” Doyle said of Wake Forest. “They have real soccer players there and Johnston was one of them. He stood out for his composure and his reading of the game. The question with him is, can he be athletic enough in MLS?”
To acquire the pick it used to draft Johnston, Nashville sent $75,000 in general allocation money to the Rapids.
Panicco, 23, is a native of Huntersville, North Carolina and started in 77 games across four seasons at UNC-Charlotte. The 6-foot-5 goalkeeper tallied 35 clean sheets across his career for the 49ers and allowed 0.79 goals per game.
“Big keeper, good hands,” Doyle said of Panicco. “He’s kind of the classic keeper in that he doesn’t come out. He’s not hyper-aggressive. He uses his size, uses his sure hands, uses his frame. He’s a little bit older as well.”
Nashville previously only had two goalkeepers on its roster in MLS veteran Joe Willis and 24-year-old Adrian Zendejas. Panicco should have a chance to make the MLS squad.
The club sent $50,000 in general allocation money to New England to acquire the pick it used on Panicco. Nashville will owe the Revolution an additional $50,000 if Panicco meets certain performance-based metrics during the 2020 season.
In the second round of the draft, Nashville added Clemson defender Tanner Dieterich, a Nashville native. Dieterich was a team captain for three seasons at Clemson and also played in the midfield. In 2017, he played with Nashville SC’s U-23 side in USL League Two.
Nashville SC has two picks remaining in the draft, which will conclude Monday with third and fourth round selections.