Alistair Johnston: Move to Montréal “felt right” – Herdman “driving force” behind Canada’s success

By FPL360


Interview with CanMNT star 

It has been a turbulent time for CF Montréal defender Alistair Johnston. The 23-year-old was traded from Nashville SC to Montréal in the off-season. With the Canadian men’s national team, Johnston is on the verge of making history by qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Despite everything going on, Johnston made the time to talk to Transfermarkt about his trade, the CanMNT, his future, and growing the game in all of Canada.

“There’s obviously been a lot going on, but it’s all been positive, and now that I’m getting fully settled in Montreal,” Johnston said to Transfermarkt when asked about the last few months. “Uprooting your life and going somewhere new is never a straightforward process, but going home to Canada and a city that I’m familiar with and already having a strong relationship with some of the players within the group made the transition easy.”

CF Montréal acquired Johnston in what was a blockbuster trade by Major League Soccer standards. Nashville SC received $750,000 in 2022 General Allocation Money (GAM) and $250,000 GAM in 2023. GAM is a mechanism that allows clubs to buy down salaries towards the cap and does not translate well into real transfer fees as they are used in the rest of the world. Johnston was a big part of an expansion side that was initially overshadowed by Inter Miami CF but, unlike its fellow expansion side, managed to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs two years in a row.

Alistair Johnston: Trade came “out of the blue” – Montréal “right next step”

“Nashville was built with a great blend of MLS experience and strong characters that had no issues being overlooked and counted out as we were while coming into the league at the same time as Inter Miami,” Johnston said. “They were the glitz and glamor franchise while we were an afterthought in 2020, and it fueled our locker room.”

Drafted from college in 2020, Johnston played 49 games for Nashville SC (one goal and one assist) over two seasons and became a Canadian international while also seeing his market value grow to $2.75 million. With that in mind, it was no surprise that the defender was in high demand, and in the end, Montréal won the race.

“Honestly, the whole trade came together so quickly and out of the blue that I didn’t have a ton of time to truly process it at the moment,” Johnston said. “But it felt right, and I was excited about the new opportunity, which was a good sign. Being able to play in my home country and continue to help try and grow the sport here in Canada made it a very intriguing proposition and felt like the right next step in my career as both a player and person.”

CF Montréal qualified for the Concacaf Champions League by winning the Canadian Championship in 2021—the club lost the first leg of the quarterfinal against Cruz Azul 1-0 at the Azteca but has a big opportunity to overturn the result next week in Montréal. “Being involved in multiple competitions now with CF Montreal, including the MLS, Concacaf Champions League, and the Canadian Championship was definitely a massive selling point for me,” Johnston said.

Alistair Johnston in action for the Canadian men's national team

Alistair Johnston in action for the Canadian men’s national team

Johnston: Has EU passport – “Major connection between Montréal and Bologna” 

“There’s obviously a major connection between Montreal and Bologna through the Saputo family’s ownership of both clubs,” Johnston said while also pointing out that he has both a UK passport and an EU passport through his Irish family, which could make a move to Europe easier. “I’d be over the moon if something were to happen, but that’s not happening tomorrow, so I’m totally focused on the present.”

For now, however, the focus is on Montréal. “I understand how much the Saputo family has already invested in me, and I want to repay them with wins and big-time performances that help bring excitement and trophies to CF Montréal and the supporters,” Johnston said. “That’s my focus, so I’m going to continue to try and get better every day and hopefully have my most successful season yet.”

While Johnston then is quite clear about his ambitions to play at the highest level in Europe, the focus, for now, is on Montréal and the Canadian men’s national team. The CanMNT is now on the verge of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar—a stage that could present further opportunity for Johnston to show his skills to interested European clubs.

Johnston on Herdman: “Never been part of anything quite like this” 

“I’ve never been a part of anything quite like this, and it’s beyond exciting to realize the potential long-term implications we can have on this sport within Canada,” Johnston said when asked what Canada’s World Cup qualification would mean for the country. “The talent and passion for soccer are alive in this country, and now this next generation will dream of being the next Alphonso Davies or Jonathan David and representing Canada at a World Cup.”

Canada is currently first in the Concacaf World Cup qualifying, ahead of the United States and Mexico—both were defeated on Canadian soil. Johnston points at national team coach John Herdman as one of the main driving forces for the country’s recent football success.

“John has been the driving force behind all the positive momentum in our program since he took charge,” Johnston said. “Of course, there have been some incredibly talented players coming through the ranks over the past few years, but he’s been able to create a culture of winning and brotherhood, which is a hard thing to do. The confidence he instills in us has us playing with no fear, and we embody that swagger that he exudes from the touchline.”

There has been a ton of focus on the likes of Davies and David leading the line for Canada. But players like Johnston, who as recently as 2018 turned out for amateur side Vaughan Azzurri have formed a critical backbone for Canada’s success.

“John has an amazing understanding of what each player needs to play at a level that they didn’t even know they had in them,” Johnston said. “That’s how he’s got players like me who were less than 24 months out from going to economics classes in college in the morning to going up against Christian Pulisic or Chucky Lozano with no fear.”

Davies, David, Larin & Co.: The most valuable CanMNT players

25. Russell Teibert – Vancouver Whitecaps – €1 million

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24. Cristián Gutiérrez – Vancouver Whitecaps – €1 million

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23. Dayne St. Clair – Minnesota United – €1 million

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22. Liam Millar – FC Basel – €1 million

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21. Theo Corbeanu – Sheffield Wednesday – €1 million

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On loan from Wolverhampton

20. Kamal Miller – CF Montréal – €1.5 million

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19. Liam Fraser – Columbus Crew – €1.5 million

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18. Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty – Toronto FC – €1.5 million

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17. Milan Borjan – Crvena zvezda – €2 million

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16. Scott Arfield – Rangers – €2 million

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15. Maxime Crépeau – Vancouver Whitecaps – $2 million

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14. Jacob Shaffelburg – Toronto FC – €2 million

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13. Alistair Johnston – Nashville SC – €2.5 million

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12. Samuel Piette – Montreal Impact – €2.5 million

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11. Lucas Cavallini – Vancouver Whitecaps – €3 million

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10. Richie Laryea – Nottingham Forest – €3.5 million

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9. Ike Ugbo – ESTAC Troyes – €3.5 million

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8. Jonathan Osorio – Toronto FC – €4 million

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7. Stephen Eustáquio – Porto – €5 million

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On loan from Paços de Ferreira

6. Mark-Anthony Kaye – Colorado Rapids – €5 million

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5. Ayo Akinola – Toronto FC – €5 million

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4. Tajon Buchanan – New England Revolution – €8.5 million

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3. Cyle Larin – Besiktas – €11 million

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2. Jonathan David – LOSC Lille – €50 million

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1. Alphonso Davies – Bayern Munich – €70 million

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Johnston, in some ways, highlights the hidden talent still available in Canada. “I hope that I’m proof to all other young Canadian players that just because you haven’t been in youth national team setups or scouted by MLS academies that the dream isn’t over if you don’t want it to be.”

Johnston: “Accessibility key” to grow the game in all of Canada

With that in mind, Johnston also pointed out that there is still work to do to grow the game in all of Canada. One example is British Columbia. Once the backbone for Canadian soccer—the vast majority of the 1986 World Cup team came from BC—the third-largest province by population is now underrepresented in the national team.

“That’s definitely been a major point that my family loves to bring up: ‘Where are all the BC boys at?,’” Johnston said. “My dad grew up playing in the Vancouver area and knew a handful of the players on that 86 squad from playing with or against them throughout his time, so I’m glad I can continue to represent the west coast to the best of my abilities.”

Johnston believes that the diverse talent of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and League 1 Ontario have been significant factors in the growth of the game in Ontario. But Johnston also pointed out that the milder climate on the West Coast makes the lack of talent surprising. “If the coaching and infrastructure are properly set up, then the players will be developed, and I have no doubt in that—so if the western provinces can get that right, then we will continue to see more players like Alphonso Davies and Sam Adekugbe coming through.”

The Canadian Premier League could be another factor. “Accessibility is key, not just for men,” Johnston said. “This goes in many different ways, from making it super easy to watch and keep up with the game in our country, whether that’s the men’s or women’s national teams or the CPL, for example. A domestic professional women’s league needs to be created to build on and maintain the women’s national team’s success while giving the next generation of young girls a clear pathway to a professional career. The game has to be as mainstream as possible.”

Sissoko, Moragrega, Graiciar & Co.: The most valuable Canadian Premier League players

Alejandro Díaz – Pacific FC – Market value: $330,000

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Ollie Bassett – Atlético Ottawa – Market value: $330,000

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Kyle Bekker – Forge FC – Market value: $330,000

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Sergio Camargo – Cavalry FC – Market value: $330,000

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Ballou Tabla – Atlético Ottawa – Market value: $330,000

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Terran Campbell – Forge FC – Market value: $385,000

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Martin Graiciar – York United FC – Market value: $385,000

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Marco Bustos – Pacific FC – Market value: 440,000

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Joe Mason – Cavalry FC – Market value: $440,000

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João Morelli – HFX Wanderers – Market value: $495,000

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Vladimir Moragrega – Atlético Ottawa – Market value: $550,000

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Abdoul Wahid Sissoko – Atlético Ottawa – Market value: $660,000

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