The U of T alum shares his challenging and remarkable journey to Nashville SC

Around a decade ago, you might’ve found Lukas MacNaughton studying for his ECO101 exam at Gerstein. As an architecture student, MacNaughton wasn’t required to take the course, but he thought it’d be chill.

He was wrong. “I understood everything, came to the first exam, [and it’s all] multiple choice,” he recalled with a laugh, in an interview with The Varsity. “They’re all the same answer, but just with different decimal points or different plusses [or] negatives… that was devastating.” 

Yet in 2024, the stress of a multiple-choice economics exam is nowhere near the top of MacNaughton’s mind. Neither is architecture. Instead, you can find MacNaughton gracing Tennessee’s Geodis Park, wearing the electric gold jersey donned by the players of Nashville SC. 

MacNaughton never imagined he would become a professional soccer player. His journey to Major League Soccer (MLS) was long, arduous, and surprising. “All of a sudden, it just happened. So, honestly, whatever you think is possible, is possible,” he said. 

MacNaughton proudly wears the gold jerseys of Nashville SC. COURTESY OF NICK BASTOKY CC NASHVILLE SC

Brussels to Toronto 

MacNaughton, born in New York but raised in Brussels, Belgium, discovered his passion for soccer while playing on his first team in the Belgian capital. When he moved to Toronto to study, he continued playing soccer. 

MacNaughton still looks back fondly at his time at U of T. “[Varsity] Stadium is, to this day, one of the nicer stadiums I’ve been in,” he reminisced. “With the view of the CN Tower, it’s just so sick.” 

MacNaughton played as a midfielder with the Varsity Blues from 2013–2017, captaining the team from 2015 onward. From 2014–2017, he was named an Ontario University Athletics (OUA) East first-team all-star, and in 2015 and 2017, he was named a second-team all-Canadian. 

The team also reached great heights during his time there, earning three OUA bronze medals. “We were a really good team, but… we always came just a little short.” Despite that, those bronze medals taught him valuable lessons, he said, helping him “understand what [he] need[ed] to win.” 

But being part of the team and that community — the laughs shared on those long bus trips — sticks the strongest for MacNaughton. “You have like a huge network of people that you can connect with… [and who are] very similar in the way that they are,” he said. 


However, MacNaughton also admitted that playing with the Blues and in the OUA has been the biggest challenge he’s had to overcome throughout his whole career. “It’s like being the underdog [because] you don’t come from a big school [or] a [division one] school,” he said. The OUA is getting better, he explained, but the respect it has outside of Canada is still lacking. 

“If you know about [it] and you’re a Canadian and you’ve played there, you respect it,” he explained. “But if you haven’t, you don’t understand.” 

Toronto to Victoria, and back

MacNaughton didn’t plan to pursue soccer professionally after finishing his undergraduate degree. From a young age, MacNaughton had an interest in architecture. “And then, you know, once [my] grandparents [found] that out, they would just send me architecture books for Christmas,” he joked. “After that, I didn’t really have a choice. It was like, ‘What else do I do?’”

Therefore, he chose to study architecture at U of T. In 2018, he began his masters program in architecture, intending to possibly open up an architecture firm in the future. He also decided to try his hand at working at another architecture firm as well — a way to test whether architecture was genuinely something he could make a career out of. “It was unreal. I was learning so much, I was seeing so much, [and] it was going really well,” he described. 

But then, in 2019, the Canadian Premier League (CPL) was founded, and MacNaughton got a call from a coach, offering him a place at Pacific FC in Victoria, British Columbia. “I thought about it really quickly [and] I said yes,” he explained. “[I thought], I’ll do it for a year and if it works out, it works out, [and] if it doesn’t work out, I could always come back to [architecture].”

So, MacNaughton packed up all his stuff, threw it in his car, and moved across Canada. Now, playing on a professional soccer team, the environment was new. “It’s not like a school, where we were all boys, and we all went to the same classes, [and] we all liked to go to the same parties,” he described. 

That difference was a surprise for him but one that became easier to adapt to, particularly as the team started winning. On an individual level, the first season was great, and he even attracted interest from teams in Austria and Switzerland — though the interest culminated in nothing. 

Nevertheless, that brief saga convinced him to play more with Pacific FC. MacNaughton didn’t give it up. “I [was] so close, so I [needed to] give it one more year,” he said. “And then [on my] third year with the team, we did so well.” 

In 2021, Pacific FC won the CPL and impressively beat the Vancouver Whitecaps, an MLS team, in the Canadian Championship semi-finals. Meanwhile, MacNaughton led the CPL in successful passes, while also finishing first for aerial duels, and fourth in the league for interceptions. Crucially, he was a key part of the defense that held eight clean sheets, including Pacific FC’s 1–0 victory against Forge FC in the 2021 CPL final. 

His success at Pacific FC attracted the attention of Toronto FC, and in January 2022, he signed a two-year contract with the club. He became the first Varsity Blues athlete to sign a professional MLS contract, and three years after leaving Toronto, MacNaughton was back. 

Toronto to Nashville

Playing for TFC was surreal. “It was very cool,” he explained. “I had watched [TFC] for… like six [or] five years, and so I knew all about the players.” It was surreal to sit down at the same table with Michael Bradley or Jonathan Osorio — players he had watched on TV and now could call his teammates. 

MacNaughton’s time with Toronto was sweet, but it was also cut short. After only making 28 appearances for the team, TFC traded MacNaughton to Nashville SC, on April 25, 2023. “I was devastated,” MacNaughton described. “I [was] happy here, I liked the city, I liked the people… [and now] I gotta move.” 

But the trade also brought new life into MacNaughton’s career. The new teammates were nice, everything was organized, and it helped that Nashville was performing much better than TFC. 

Furthermore, when US national team centreback and two-time MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman was away from Nashville on international duty, MacNaughton was provided the opportunity to step up and take his place. He was almost immediately thrust into the starting lineup against the Chicago Fire on May 6, and he would go on to start another 12 MLS games for Nashville throughout the season, even playing alongside Zimmerman when he returned.

On May 18, just three games into MacNaughton’s career at Nashville, the team played against Inter Miami. In the 49th minute, Nashville right-back, Shaq Moore whipped in a cross from just outside the box, and MacNaughton rose to head the ball into the net. It was his first MLS goal and the goal that would win Nashville the game. “When you score a goal, it’s one of those feelings where it’s so good, like you feel on top of the world,” he explained. “But it doesn’t last.” 

MacNaughton runs to celebrate his first MLS goal. COURTESY OF NICK BASTOKY CC NASHVILLE SC

The goal isn’t the standout memory from his career so far. Nevertheless, Inter Miami was still at the centre of the most memorable moment of MacNaughton’s career. On August 19, 2023, Nashville SC played against Inter Miami in the final of the League Cup. Yet, Miami was a very different team than the one MacNaughton had scored against in May — they now had Lionel Messi leading them. 

Named in the starting 11 next to Zimmerman, MacNaughton played all 120 minutes, man-marking Messi, as both teams vied for the trophy. When the game went to a penalty shootout, MacNaughton stepped up as Nashville’s eighth penalty-taker, burying it down the middle.

Despite the heartbreaking final result of the game, reaching the final and playing in that environment is the memory that stands out most significantly for MacNaughton. 

MacNaughton celebrates after scoring his penalty. COURTESY OF NICK BASTOKY CC NASHVILLE SC

And beyond?

“Every single goal that I had [made], I had achieved it. But at the same, it’s like, ‘Okay, you achieved it, [so] what’s next?’” he said. “And you do something [else] and you’re not satisfied.” 

His journey isn’t over yet — MacNaughton has a clear hunger to go further. The 2026 World Cup is set to be co-hosted by Canada, and MacNaughton hopes to play. He already made his Canadian national team debut against Bahrain in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup. 

Additionally, winning the MLS Cup is a big goal for MacNaughton. “And then [also] staying healthy enough to be able to play to like 37 or something,” he added with a smile. 

Editor’s note (February 5): A previous version of this article stated that Shaq Moore of Nashville SC is a left-back, when he is actually a right-back.