Alistair Johnston is used to seeing familiar faces when he turns up for Canadian men’s national team duty. He has, after all, been a key member of the team for the last two-and-a-half years.
This time around, though, ahead of Canada’s friendly clash with Japan on Friday, he’s been reunited with an old friend he’s never seen at a CanMNT camp before: his former CF Montréal teammate Mathieu Choinière.
At the first time of asking under interim head coach Mauro Biello, Choinière has finally earned a much-deserved first call-up to the CanMNT picture after starring all season long for Biello’s former club.
Johnston, who says he has been keeping up with his former club as much as his hectic Celtic schedule and the time difference between Quebec and Scotland allow, was effusive in his praise of his 24-year-old former teammate when asked by a Montréal journalist at CanMNT’s pre-match press conference on Thursday.
“I’m not surprised at all by what Mathieu’s done,” said Johnston. “He deserves to be here.
“When I was there with him last year playing with him, you could just tell this guy’s a really good footballer. He can play in any position in midfield or across the back, as a No. 10. He’s so good at getting on the ball and finding space. He’s one of those guys who is the kind of player that Canada needs to develop and to continue to bring through because they’re the real high-level footballers.
“I’m excited to see he’s getting his chance here, he’s fully deserving of it.”
Related read: Canada interim boss Mauro Biello drops selection hints ahead of CanMNT’s friendly against Japan
Choinière isn’t just part of the squad to make up the numbers, either. Particularly with Stephen Eustáquio now heading back to Portugal to recover from injury, Choinière’s odds of making his Canada debut look pretty good.
Biello all but confirmed that on Thursday, speaking to reporters alongside Johnston.
“Every time you look at Montréal, he’s there playing 90 minutes,” Biello said. “He’s been their most consistent player, and I think he merits this call-up based on his performances in Montreal. He’s a player I know well, and he understands the game well, he knows how to exploit space, and his decision-making is very good, so now it’s up to him to see how he integrates into the group and is able to perform at those levels here.”
“He will either get minutes at the start or end of the match,” added Biello. “He deserves that.”
Biello and Johnston certainly both know Choinière well.
The midfielder has been with his hometown club since 2011 and was the first player in the club’s history to play for the Under-13, U14, U16, U18 and U19 teams prior to joining the first team. Biello was the then-Montreal Impact’s assistant coach from 2012 to 2015 and their head coach from 2015 to 2017, so he’ll have had eyes on a teenage Choinière for several years.
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Johnston, of course, played with the midfielder in his lone season in Quebec in 2022 before heading for Celtic. He knew back then that Choinière was a seriously talented player and has watched from afar as his former teammate has bloomed, enjoying comfortably the best season of his career in 2023.
“Whenever I watch the games, he seems to be pulling all the strings…” noted Johnston. “I do think he will be named the CF Montréal MVP in a couple of weeks, I think it’s just a matter of time. He deserves that, too.”
Is a Canada debut the next step in Choinière’s superb season? We’ll find out tomorrow.