TORONTO — Lukas MacNaughton returns to Toronto with a smile on his face.
The former Toronto FC defender, traded to Nashville SC in late April, is flourishing — and winning — in his new home.
“I’m really enjoying Nashville. Everything from the city, the fans, the facilities here. The training ground is brand new, and the stadium (Geodis Park) is unbelievable,” he said. “BMO Field is a beautiful stadium and something pretty iconic on the water. But Geodis, as a new stadium, it’s beautiful. It’s so nice to play here.
“It’s a great team. It’s a great locker room. The organization is run at a high level. As a footballer you want to be winning games and you want to be in a place that values you as a player. So this is a great spot for me and I’m very happy.”
Nashville (9-3-4) arrives on a roll for Saturday’s matchup with Toronto (3-5-9). It has won four straight — matching the franchise record set in August-September 2022 — and is unbeaten in its last eight league outings (6-0-2).
“We have an identity of how we want to play and the players are very committed to it,” said MacNaughton. “Everybody knows their role and the strengths of this team. And it’s not just 11 players that are on the pitch that are performing, it’s the whole group of 25 players that all have the commitment to win and to help the team out, no matter what their role is.”
TFC is coming off back-to-back draws against Chicago and is unbeaten in three games (1-0-2). While it has only won two of its last 14 games (2-5-7) in all competitions, it has lost just once at home this season (3-1-5) in league play.
Toronto’s lengthy injury list has begun to shorten with only forward Adama Diomande and midfielders Michael Bradley, Alonso Coello and Victor Vazquez listed as out. Defenders Matt Hedges and Shane O’Neill are questionable for Saturday’s game.
Jonathan Osorio is a welcome omission from the injury report. The veteran midfielder has not played since April 22, missing the last nine games with a strained knee ligament.
“Oso has been in training all week and is available,” Toronto coach Bob Bradley said after training Friday. “So that’s certainly a good sign for us.”
The other good news is Lorenzo Insigne is rounding into form. The Italian star has been involved in TFC’s last three goals (one goal and two assists).
Bradley said his team was able to train all week, despite the poor air quality due to wildfires elsewhere.
“The mornings weren’t too bad. As the day went on, I think it got worse. Certainly, you could smell it a little bit but it didn’t affect training.”
Nashville stands second in both the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield standings behind FC Cincinnati (12-1-3, 39 points). At 31 points, it has 13 more than 12th-place Toronto, which has played one game more.
The club boasts the league’s top defence having conceded just 11 goals in 16 matches. Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis boats a league-best 0.69 goals-against average with six shutouts.
That stingy defence has led to wins. Nashville has not lost in its last 37 matches (24-0-13) when scoring the first goal of a match, dating back to August 2021.
Nashville has outscored opponents 17-7 during the unbeaten stretch with Hany Mukhtar, the league’s player of the month for May, contributing eight goals and four assists. It has not allowed more than a goal per match in the streak.
The 28-year-old MacNaughton has made five league starts for Nashville, scoring his first MLS goal May 17 in a 2-1 win over Inter Miami. The winning goal came off a Shaq Moore cross as Nashville pressed after a free kick near the Miami box.
“For me that was a long time coming,” said MacNaughton, who celebrated the goal with a beaming smile. “I like to score goals. I like to win headers. I like to get in the (penalty) box and it’s something I think I’m quite good at.”
Nashville is 5-0-1 in all competitions with MacNaughton in the lineup.
MacNaughton partnered Jack Maher at centre back in the absence of U.S. international Walker Zimmerman, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year. Zimmerman, who had been dealing with a groin strain, returned to the starting lineup last Saturday and played 58 minutes in a 2-1 win over FC Dallas.
MacNaughton will likely see more playing time this summer due to Zimmerman’s international duties at the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup.
Born in New York City to a Canadian father and Austrian mother, MacNaughton moved to Belgium when he was seven. After attending the University of Toronto to study architecture, his soccer career took off in the Canadian Premier League at Pacific FC.
Toronto sent MacNaughton and up to US$200,000 in general allocation money to Nashville to get veteran forward CJ Sapong.
MacNaughton, who made 31 appearances in all competitions for Toronto since joining the club in January 2022 from Pacific, said the trade came as a surprise.
“There was no real discussions. There’s no transparency from Toronto and I think that’s something that is really lacking in that organization.”
Still MacNaughton, who captained the U of T soccer team, enjoyed his time in Toronto.
“It’s a place I have in to my heart — and the club too. It’s something I grew up watching. I have a lot of love for that club. But I think at the moment it’s in a tough place. And I also want to see it get back to a better place, back to where it should be — winning trophies and all that.”
But he clearly likes the Nashville team vibe.
“There’s a big commitment here at Nashville that every player here has a role and has an important role,” he said. “And I think that’s how good teams and teams that win championships operate. It’s not 11 guys or three guys that are going to win you a championship. Because a season is long. It’s 22, 25 guys that are all going to commit to something and win it together.”
“Everybody feels valued,” he added. “I think that’s part of the reason we’re winning.”
Former TFC winger Jacob Shaffelburg has served as his guide to Nashville. The two live about a two-minute walk each from other.
MacNaughton’s looking forward to seeing familiar faces Saturday but says his return won’t be too sentimental.
“I haven’t been away that long and I had to go back to get some stuff and ship it over here,” he said. “So it doesn’t really feel like I left that long ago.”