Alistair Johnston is already feeling at home with CF Montreal.
The newly acquired Canadian international defender has friends on the MLS team, appreciates its “very beautiful” style of play and has been rewarded with a new contract in the trade that brought him north of the border this week.
And with Montreal willing to spend US$1 million in general allocation money to pry him away from Nashville SC — on top of that four-year improved deal — the 23-year-old from Aurora, Ont., knows he is with a team that wants him.
“It was definitely something that I looked at and went ‘Wow, this is a team that really values me.’ And I think that was something as a player you want feel valued,” Johnston said Thursday.
“The money’s as much about that as it is anything else. You want to be somewhere where you feel like you’re wanted. And I always felt wanted in Nashville. It just felt like Montreal was willing to move mountains — and move anything possible to come get me. And that was something that really stuck out for me and got me excited about this potential move.”
Johnston, who made just $73,079 in his second MLS season in 2021, scored plenty of points in his first media availability since the trade with local reporters complimenting him for his French language skills.
Engaging and well-spoken in any language, Johnston credited time spent in French immersion as a child.
Born in Vancouver, Johnston was four when the family moved to Montreal and seven when it settled in Aurora. He noted he started playing organized soccer in Montreal with Lakeshore SC, saying his return made for a “full circle.”
While lamenting his French vocabulary, Johnston said he looks to improve it whenever he is in camp with Canada, asking teammates like Sam Piette, Maxime Crepeau and James Pantemis to speak only French to him.
Johnston furthered endeared himself to the locals by noting that, while spending the bulk of his youth in the Toronto area, the Toronto FC academy considered him “too small.”
“To be honest I never was the biggest Toronto fan growing up, sI’ll have no problems going up against them,” he said cheerfully. “I love the rivalry. I think it’s great for the sport.”
Johnston said rather than him being on the trading block, it was a case of Montreal being “very persuasive” with “multiple big offers.”
“It got to a point where Nashville couldn’t refuse,” he said.
Johnston grew up playing with fellow Montreal defender Kamal Miller through high school and during university breaks. He also counts Piette as a close friend.
`”I’m excited to get in there. I’m excited to have a bigger role,” said Johnston.
The move to Montreal comes after a whirlwind year that saw Johnston make his senior debut with Canada in March and play in 18 of Canada’s 19 games.
Able to play at wingback, fullback or in the right side of a back three, Johnston joins a Montreal defence that tied for 10th in the league last season, averaging 1.29 goals against a game.
The backline has changed with the club opting not to exercise contract options on Kiki Struna and Mustafa Kizza while veteran Rudy Camacho is out of contract at year’s end.
Johnston joins fellow Canadians Miller, Zachary Brault-Guillard, Zorhan Bassong and Joel Waterman in a Montreal defence that also features Italian youth international defender Gabriele Corbo, who joined earlier in December on loan from Bologna for the 2022 MLS season.
A product of Wake Forest, where he was converted to fullback from midfielder, Johnston was taken by Nashville in the first round (11th overall) in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft.
He played in 44 games for Nashville, recording 39 starts and 3,510 minutes of playing time in one of the stingiest backlines in the league. He also saw action in five playoff matches.
He was 16 when he made his debut in the Canadian youth program at an under-18 camp in 2015.