'It's motivation for me': How Jean-Aniel Assi is following Sean Rea's CPL path to CF Montréal
When Jean-Aniel Assi runs at defenders, it can be a sight to behold.
In an instant, he can go from a standstill to a full sprint, doing so while maintaining close control of the ball. Through that, he can make defenders look silly, as that change of speed can be a nightmare to try and anticipate.
From there, usually, whatever happens is still a work in progress. When it works, it can be magical, as he’s shown in the three assists he’s managed in eight games for Atlético Ottawa this season.
And even when it doesn’t come off, that’s okay - it’s easy to forget that despite it being over three years since he made his professional debut, Assi is just 18 years of age, far from a finished article as a player.
When put in that context, it makes his strong performances this season look even better, as he’s shown good maturity for his age. In just his second full season as a professional, he’s already taken a big step forward this year, adding some important tools to his game.
More of a natural winger, he’s been asked to play as more of a wing back for Ottawa, and it’s been a role that he’s adjusted quite nicely to, especially defensively.
Already strong offensively, as most know, he’s quickly taken to the task of rounding out his game, which is huge for a player his age.
“In this formation, I need to defend a little bit more, and that’s what (head coach Carlos González) has pushed me to do in meetings,” Assi told OneSoccer this week. “When I play a position, I want to give my all.”
“I’m confident in 1v1s, I know what works for me, and defenders know that I’ve got speed and that I can take the ball to the touchline, but I need to adapt my game, especially defensively. It’s a lot to learn, but I know I can do it, and I’ve been learning step-by-step.”
Yet, that’s why Assi is currently playing for Ottawa. Contracted to CF Montréal, he’s the latest young prospect out of their academy to head to the CPL on loan, following in the footsteps of Sean Rea, Jonathan Sirois and Karifa Yao in that regard.
Having sent Assi to Cavalry last season, where he got to learn about the rigours of pro soccer on a deep side under Tommy Wheeldon Jr, Montréal wanted him to take an even bigger step this season. He was good at Cavalry, especially on the ball, but it felt like he hadn’t hit the next gear quite yet.
As a result, with Cavalry’s strong depth potentially standing in the way of minutes for Assi, Ottawa stood out as a natural fit to help him find that next level, as they needed U21 Canadians that could help them meet the 2000 minute threshold each team is required to hit for those players, after only narrowly hitting that mark last year.
Add in that Ottawa is known for their defensive discipline and tactical organization off the ball, all in a formation not too dissimilar to Montréal’s, and it was a perfect chance for Assi to develop that side of his game while building on the ~850 minutes he got across all competitions last year.
Already sitting at over ~600 minutes through the quarter mark of this campaign, and looking good on both sides of the ball, it’s worked to perfection, too, much to the joy of Assi.
“When I went to Calgary, it was the first time I was away from my family, and it was a good experience for that,” he explained.
“It’s important to remember that when they send you on loan, it’s not a punishment, they see what kind of player you are and they want you to progress, to get minutes and show you can play.”
“My agent came to me, and told me Ottawa was interested, so I knew that if I came here, I could have a new experience, and the coach here knows how I play, and they play a similar formation to Montréal’s, so I knew this loan was a good chance for me to progress and prepare for that next level.”
And for what it’s worth, Ottawa’s been pleased with how their new charge has adapted to them, as well.
They knew they were getting a special player on the ball when he arrived, as he still managed to nab two assists for Cavalry last year in his limited minutes, but having worked with him now, they’ve been impressed with the whole package he’s brought to the table.
“We brought him here because we know that he has a special talent,” González explained after Ottawa’s match against Vancouver FC on May 13th. “We thought that he would fit perfectly into our team and the ideas we have about football.”
“He’s working very hard, he’s a humble guy, he listens well, and that work has started to pay off, and I hope now that he starts to grab the confidence he needs to continue growing and to keep being an important player for us.”
Just look at his performance in that aforementioned Vancouver FC match, as an example. Ottawa’s best performance of the season, a 5-0 drubbing of Vancouver on the road, Assi was one of the best players on the pitch that day, as Vancouver had no answers for his seemingly endless bursts down the right-hand side of the pitch.
As a result, he finished with strong numbers on both sides of the ball, and nabbed a well-taken assist for his efforts, which just happened to be one that set up new signing Sam Salter for his first goal in Ottawa colours after a slow start.
Grateful for that, of course, Salter explained that his goal came down to Assi, being, well, Assi.
“We know he’s an explosive player, that he likes to run down the wing,” Salter said. “And as soon as he makes these runs, I know he’ll cut back that ball, it’s something we’ve worked on training, so it’s awesome to see that it paid off for us.”
Yet, games like that are exactly what Assi is eager to bring to the table whenever possible.
He’s made no secret about it when asked - he wants to play at that next level and become a regular for CF Montréal, having been in their academy since he was 13.
To do that, he needs to dominate at this level, meaning a lot more performances like the Vancouver one, on a consistent basis.
If he does that? He definitely can make that jump up.
Don’t believe it? Just look at what Rea, Sirois and Yao did after their multi-year stints in the CPL.
Rea and Sirois are now regulars with Montréal after becoming key pieces for Valour in loans across the last two seasons, in which Sirois was named CPL goalkeeper of the year in 2021, and Rea was named CPL U21 Player of the Year in 2022. As for Yao, even if Montréal actually let him go last offseason, two strong seasons with Cavalry was enough to earn him a spot on the Vancouver Whitecaps, allowing him to make that jump up.
What that shows is that if Assi can put together a strong season for Ottawa, the opportunity will be there, as his fellow academy products have proved over the last few years.
“Of course, when I see Sean Rea go on loan two times to Valour, and Karifa Yao go on two loans to Cavalry and now they’re in MLS, that’s what I mean when I say loans are not punishments, it’s a valuable experience,” Assi admitted. “In Sean Rea’s first year, he got minutes, and then in his second year, he was the best U21 player in the league - these loans give you a chance to progress and grow as a player.”
“When it comes to Montréal, I want to play there, it’s a motivation for me, I want to give my best on this loan, win games, work hard, get goals and assists, and have good stats so I can go to Montréal in 2024 and be like “I’m back, and I want to play here.”
Plus, while seeing Rea and Sirois make that jump is a motivating factor, it’s actually worth noting that Assi also has another thing pushing him on - the fact that he’s already gotten a taste of that next level.
Having got an opportunity to play with Montréal’s first team back in 2020, when then-coach Thierry Henry actually handed him his debut as a 16-year-old in a Concacaf Champions League quarter-final match against Olimpia, that memory has stuck with him ever since.
Was thrilled to see 16-year-old Jean-Aniel Assi make his first-team debut last night. He was bold and willing to take guys on. It didn’t lead to anything but the fact that he wasn’t timid was impressive. He’ll get there physically eventually #IMFC— Joey Alfieri (@joeyalfieri) December 16, 2020
As can be the case for a young player that gets such an opportunity, you can think that the opportunities will come in bunches after, which isn’t actually often the case.
Over two years on since that day, Assi has seen that, as that’s so far been his only appearance with the club competitively, something that he admits has fuelled him on his loan stints.
“When I played in 2020, I didn’t actually know I would actually play in that game, but when Thierry Henry called me and said ‘Hey, Assi, you’re going to come in’, I was excited,” Assi reminisced. “It was a good experience, I was a little bit nervous when I came on the field, because I was a young player playing with older guys, but it was a good experience.”
“Since then, I’ve gone on my two loans, and it’s pushed me to know I’m not done at that level, and that I want to give my best to get back to that.”
So now, look for Assi to keep on pushing, as that’s just one of many goals he’s set out for himself.
Even beyond playing for his hometown team in the city where he was raised after moving over from Ivory Coast at a young age, Assi also wants to leave his mark internationally one day with the Canadian Men’s National Team, as well.
Of course, that’s a much longer-term objective than making the CF Montréal roster, as the CanMNT pool is deeper than ever and growing seemingly daily, but seeing several former CPL players make that jump, Assi wants to add his name to that list eventually.
Having had the opportunity to represent Canada’s U15s in the past, as well as the U20s last year as a member of Cavalry, he’s had a taste of what it means to represent his country.
Mauro Biello calling up quite a few #CFMTL players on this Canada U20 squad. Five (or six) to be precise:— Tristan D'Amours (@tristandamours) June 10, 2022
- Jean-Aniel Assi (loaned to Cavalry), Rida Zouhir, Keesean Ferdinand from 1st team
- Mael Henry & Loic Cloutier from the Academy
- Jefferson Alphonse on the taxi squad pic.twitter.com/oGLLrwjAtO
And make no mistake - it’s Canada or bust for him at this stage of the journey. Of course, Ivory Coast is always an option, but Assi remains forever grateful for what Canada has provided to him, and wants to pay that back.
Therefore, while his goal of playing for Montréal is what’s driving him in the day-to-day, that obsession of wanting to play for Canada overlaps all of that.
At the moment, he’s on the right track, so now, it’ll be all about building off this solid start to his life with the new club, and from there, not looking back.
“I did U15s and U20s, and it’s been great to represent Canada,” Assi said. “This is a country that has helped me, and this country is why I’m a professional soccer player. So when that first opportunity came, I wanted to go and contribute for my country. It meant a lot to me, when you go with your National Team you have to give everything you’ve got, and it was a great experience.”
“Now, I’m pushing every day, so that when I can make the jump up to Europe or MLS, I’m ready, as everything you do on the field is watched, and I want to be prepared for if that day comes, so I’m working hard every day so that I can one day play with the senior team.”