MacNaughton’s improvement in CPL shows he can be valuable add for Toronto FC

It’s official: Lukas MacNaughton, a three-year veteran of Pacific FC, is making the jump to Major League Soccer, having signed with Toronto FC this week and joined Bob Bradley’s side in pre-season camp.

The 26-year-old centre-back was one of the most dominant defenders in the Canadian Premier League this past season, having played a massive role in Pacific’s successful championship campaign. Indeed, he’s been part of the purple fabric on Vancouver Island for all three of the club’s years in the CPL to date; in 59 matches played, MacNaughton has 5,215 minutes of pro action for Pacific — second only to Kadin Chung in club history so far.

The fact that MacNaughton, whose only professional experience has come in the CPL, is so valued by an MLS team that’s simultaneously eyeing the biggest names in all of global football, is perhaps the clearest evidence yet that there’s a new viable pathway in Canada. Though born in New York and raised in Brussels, it was the Canadian system that turned MacNaughton into a full-time footballer.

TFC have surely seen in the past two years how CF Montréal benefitted from taking a flyer on Joel Waterman, a centre-back they signed from Cavalry FC after 2019. MacNaughton, whose journey has been similar, may well be such a success story in Toronto.

RELATED: Lukas MacNaughton joins MLS side Toronto FC; Pacific receives Luke Singh on loan

Back in 2018, the pro level seemed quite a ways away for MacNaughton. He’d just finished five years in U SPORTS playing for the University of Toronto, and he’d spent the most recent soccer season in League1 Ontario with Alliance United. A few months later, and he’d signed with Pacific under then-head coach Michael Silberbauer.

Even after that first pro season, though, MacNaughton might not have been the betting favourite to get a big MLS move within a few years. Pacific conceded more goals than any other CPL side in 2019 as their inaugural squad proved to be very much a work in progress; MacNaughton himself was sent off in his team’s first ever game. Still, the club stuck with him as a key part of the defence going forward; when Pa-Modou Kah came in as head coach before the 2020 season, he too believed in the young centre-back, and by now it has certainly paid off.

“My (story) is a bit of a funny one, but I guess that’s kind of what this league is for,” MacNaughton said on the CanPL Newsroom Podcast prior to the CPL Final in December. “For guys that weren’t on that highway one straight to the top.”

MacNaughton, though he’s had a different first-choice partner in defence every season, has improved perhaps more than any other CPL player over the past three years. In 2021, Pacific’s championship season, he was comfortably one of the best at his position in the entire league — and even had a reasonable MVP case, having kept the ship so steady despite a flurry of injuries elsewhere on the pitch.

In 2021, he played 29 games for Pacific. He was a rock at the back in their magical Canadian Championship win over MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps, and he was on the pitch at BMO Field — his new digs — when the Tridents went toe-to-toe with TFC in the semi-final of the same tournament. He missed the CPL semis to a yellow card suspension, but he was back in full force for the Final, delivering perhaps his finest work yet in an outstanding 1-0 victory over defending champions Forge.

Lukas MacNaughton speaks to OneSoccer after a game at Starlight Stadium. (Photo: Pacific FC/CPL)
Lukas MacNaughton speaks to OneSoccer after a game at Starlight Stadium. (Photo: Pacific FC/CPL)

What attracted TFC to MacNaughton is likely his diverse skillset on both sides of the ball. In 2021, he was one of the CPL’s best defenders in the air — taking on the joint-most aerial duels in the league, and winning more of them (72.4%); he landed fifth in the CPL in defensive recoveries (165), fourth in interceptions (47), and he allowed the third-fewest passes into the box per 90 minutes (12.97). The six-foot-two defender is rarely outmuscled; he’s able to maintain his stance on the ball well and ensure it gets out of harm’s way (and, more often than not, into an area for Pacific to spring an attack).

On the ball, MacNaughton was perhaps even more important for Pacific this year. He was more confident than ever with the ball at his feet, with more touches than anybody else in the entire CPL (2,155) and an 86.2% pass accuracy rate. He’s an adventurous centre-back, not hesitant to push up into midfield with the ball when there’s no good option to pass forward and begin an attacking move. In fact, MacNaughton ranked second in the CPL in passes completed in the middle third this season (856), more than 100 ahead of all but one of the league’s midfielders.

Of course, such a range of abilities can be partially attributed to MacNaughton’s evolution as a player, especially in university. He spent quite a while in midfield for U of T, and he was generally quite a productive attacking threat — he led the Varsity Blues in scoring in 2016. That eye for a goal or an incisive pass has not abandoned MacNaughton, even as he’s refined his game to become a more commanding defensive presence (look no further than his long-range goal for the Tridents in August).

To Toronto FC and gaffer Bob Bradley, it’s MacNaughton’s flexibility and willingness to play a required role that will make him most valuable. With TFC in the midst of a thorough rebuild, players like MacNaughton — domestic, versatile, and hungry for an opportunity at the level — are exactly what they need to complement the incoming marquee pieces. Depending on what other defenders Toronto bring in over the coming months, MacNaughton should be able to carve out a job. If partnered with a veteran, stay-at-home defender, the former Pacific man can be the ball-mover; if it’s a high-profile centre-back brought in to play with the ball, he’ll be able to do so knowing MacNaughton can take care of business at the back.

Even as a bench player, MacNaughton could surely make an impact on a set piece late in the game. Regardless of how he’s used, MacNaughton has developed and demonstrated enough talent over the past few years to convince an MLS side to give him an opportunity.

Truly, it’s a remarkable story. Not so long ago, MacNaughton was on the fringes of even the Canadian soccer world. Three years in the Canadian Premier League later, though, he’s a teammate of Lorenzo Insigne.