For club and country: Alistair Johnston leading a Canadian wave at CF Montreal
The last time CF Montreal won a playoff game, their starting lineup featured just one Canadian player.
The occasion was the first leg of the astonishing 2016 Eastern Conference final against Toronto FC and the player was Patrice Bernier. Montreal's lack of Canadians was nothing unusual; TFC, too, started only Jonathan Osorio.
More than half a decade later, the contrast is stark. Two weeks ago, when Montreal opened its training camp for the 2022 season, it counted 18 Canadian players on its 30-man roster, with 16 of them having spent at least part of their childhood in Quebec.
Most of these players have come from one of two streams: they have either progressed through Montreal’s academy or arrived as low-cost acquisitions with untapped potential.
This winter, though, sporting director Olivier Renard stepped things up with the acquisition of Canada international Alistair Johnston for $1 million in general allocation money.
A 23-year-old with a maturity far beyond his years who looks set to be a cornerstone for the national team for the next decade, Johnston could be the face of the project on and off the field.
“I think it goes hand in hand (with) how big Canada Soccer has grown on both the men’s and women’s side over this past calendar year,” Johnson told OneSoccer.
“Although (the Canadian MLS teams have) talked about it before, about really wanting to try to build these Canadian teams filled with Canadian players, I think Montreal is really kind of showing their actions speak louder than words and really doing it.
“I think there’s no better time than right now. There's been a great crop of young players coming through.”
Aside from Samuel Piette (27) and Joel Waterman (25), Montreal’s Canadians are all aged 24 and under. Intriguingly, given it has been identified as an area of the national team lacking depth, the group is particularly heavy on defenders — especially when you focus on the names most likely to be ready to make a significant impact this season.
“That’s probably my bold prediction for Canada Soccer in the next 48 months, is that you’re going to be seeing a lot more CF Montreal defenders coming through the ranks into the national team,” Johnston said.
Kamal Miller has already established himself in John Herdman’s squad, while wing-back Zachary Brault-Guillard has been on the periphery.
Waterman, a late bloomer who may not have become a professional at all if not for the arrival of the Canadian Premier League, could be receiving a call from Herdman before long having locked down a place in Montreal’s lineup during the second half of last season.
“I think Joel has been unbelievably impressive, playing with him,” Johnston offered. “His composure on the ball, his reading of the game... I think he’s a guy that you’re going to see a lot more of.”
Karifa Yao spent last year on loan at Waterman’s old club Cavalry, and is now making his presence felt at Montreal’s camp exactly as he did in the CPL.
“Karifa is coming into his own,” Johnston enthused.
“He is an absolute powerful beast. When he tackles, everyone knows he’s tackled because the ground’s reverberating a little bit. That’s always funny. You always want him on your team in a rondo.”
Ahead of what is usually a three-man defensive unit, attacking midfielder Mathieu Choiniere may have found a new home at wing-back.
“He’s been one of those players I’ve looked at that kind of reminds me a little bit of myself to a degree,” Johnston said.
“He’s a little bit smaller but unbelievably technical. He can run forever — he absolutely killed me on the beep test. The kid is fit as a fiddle and just a super-technical and really smart player.
“I think that’s the kind of guy that once he gets his chance and really can prove his mark, and continue to show that consistency in MLS and gets his chance with the national team... Canadian national team fans are going to be like, ‘Where has this guy been?’”
They said the same about Johnston, who leads Canada in minutes played through eight games of the final round of World Cup qualifying.
Just two years after being drafted, he is not only starring for his country but also acting as a mentor for the next wave of talent.
“Being a Canadian player and being almost an older presence in that locker room and trying to help those young guys is something I’m really excited by,” Johnston reflected.
“It’s just crazy how things have changed now with soccer in this country. It really is night and day from when I was growing up.”