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SSFC Spotlight: Jack Maher providing steady presence with Nashville SC

The center back shows consistency on back line.

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Nashville SC v New England Revolution Photo by Andrew Katsampes/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The development of a player can take time, particularly after a late start at the professional level. Clubs with faith and long-term vision that afford the opportunity to grow into a role typically reap the benefits of their patience. In the third year of his career, Jack Maher is blossoming into a promising defender with Nashville SC. The 22-year-old center back endured a slower process, embarking on two loans before becoming a contributor in Major League Soccer.

Maher was born in Caseyville, Illinois and played with the well-regarded St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club. As an amateur, he competed with St. Louis FC U23 in Premier Development League and Saint Louis FC in the USL Championship, balancing the demands of schoolwork and an intense schedule. The United States Soccer Coaches named him to the All-America team, while the U.S. Soccer Development Academy selected him to the Central Conference Best XI.

“It was a great opportunity to learn and grow at the professional level,” Maher shared with STLToday. “Being a central defender, my playing time was limited. But going to practice each day with a good attitude, I was able to learn a lot from the coaches and my older teammates. And that experience has helped me greatly.”

As a four-star recruit and the country’s 25th ranked player, Maher matriculated to Indiana University and was expected to be an immediate contributor. He played two seasons with the Hoosiers, making 46 total appearances. The Big Ten named him Freshman of the Year after starting all 24 matches. The next season, the defender earned multiple All-American honors, while also winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament. Coaches praised his composure and maturity, describing him as “cerebral, smart, reading the game well, and deceptively fast.”

Electing to leave college, Maher signed a Generation Adidas contract. He was selected by Nashville SC with the second overall pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft after trialing with the club the previous summer. “From the very beginning, the one player we wanted all along was Jack Maher,” general manager Mike Jacobs told the Tennessean. “It’s less of a question of if as far as his ability and his potential to play in our team and more when. I’m not saying that Jack is going to be [USMNT defender] Miles Robinson, but I am saying that (Jack) has the same kind of potential.”

With the intention of earning more minutes, Maher began his professional career on loan with Charlotte Independence, then in the USL Championship, and made a single appearance before the COVID-19 pandemic. After returning to Nashville, he played in three matches, including earning his first start in a 3-1 victory over Houston Dynamo. Despite being behind a firmly entrenched center back pairing, his performance in limited minutes looked strong with a long-term development plan in mind.

Initially tapped for a larger role, Maher went on loan again in 2021, this time with the San Diego Loyal led by manager Landon Donovan, who provided some key advice and motivation. With some additional experience under his belt, he rejoined Nashville and scored in his return, a 3-2 win against Toronto FC. The defender assumed the starting center back role following a switch to a 3-4-3 formation, appearing in the majority of matches and reaching the quarterfinal round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

This current season has been a rollercoaster for the 22-year-old defender. He started all but two fixtures from April through July but then lost his spot in the lineup. After four matches on the bench, his return to the field came against the Vancouver Whitecaps. His two headed goals secured the 3-0 victory, earning Team of the Week honors from MLS and helping Nashville back into a good run of form after a long winless streak.

“I think whenever we look back at our performances and we didn’t quite get the results, we were playing well,” said Maher. “And I think now that we’re starting to get some of the bounces, and it is good fortune, good luck, whatever you want to call it. But it came at the right time… We’ve been consistent in that tough time and we realized the bounces weren’t going our way.”

His reward came with continued starts, as Maher appears to have settled during his brief summer break, leading the club in passing accuracy while limiting turnovers. He should continue to earn playing time for the rest of the season next to Walker Zimmerman as Nashville is in fourth place in the Western Conference table and in line for a playoff spot.

At the international level, Maher has been on the fringes of the United States program, appearing sporadically with the U-18 squad. He helped claim the 2016 Vaclav Jezek Tournament. His latest call-up came with the U-23 team during the 2020 Olympic qualifying cycle.

“Big and athletic” at 6’3”, Maher has the ideal height for a center back with the unique benefit of being left-footed. He is a highly accurate and incisive passer, finding teammates at medium and short range while also creating an above-average number of attacking opportunities from the back line. Stationed alongside Zimmerman in both a four- and five-player back line, his role is more of the complementary type, avoiding the spectacular but providing a baseline consistency as well as rarely being cautioned by the referee. His speed and tackling are assets when shutting down opponents attacking from the wing, managing to intervene at the right moment.

With each passing week, Maher appears to be improving and growing into his role with Nashville. While still a work in progress experiencing all the inherent growing pains, his emergence at center back is an interesting development for the future. If he continues to enjoy success on the field, a January camp invitation could be in order to determine potential options for the next World Cup cycle.