By Thomas Nef, speaking to Shamit Shome exclusively for WFi.
You saw what your former coach Jeff Paulus said about you. What do his words mean to you?
“It means a lot to me. Jeff has been a really key figure in my development. So obviously everything he says I take very seriously and I appreciate what he said and I can say the same for him – he’s been great.
“He’s been a great mentor for me and helping me develop and get to the next level.”
What was your initial reaction to Thierry Henry coming to Montreal Impact and what has he told you personally?
“Yeah it’s exciting, he’s a legend in the soccer world – so it’ll be cool to learn from him and hear about all the experiences he’s had and hopefully learn from that.
“But apart from that we haven’t spoken directly yet; I think that’s gonna start up when preseason starts.”
Are there any things that you are working on specifically in the off-season?
“Mostly in the gym; just explosiveness and that change of pace – being able to add more speed to my game. I felt like last season something I was told a lot was that I played a game in one state and I don’t really change gears sorta speak.
“I think that was something that was important for me to try to work on and so just that explosiveness in training. On the field it’s probably the technical side, more finishing – how to help the team in front of goal; and hopefully being able to be more involved offensively next year.”
In the past summer, John Herdman mentioned you and Liam Fraser as guys that were on the radar but on the last year of contracts so it was best to remain with your respective clubs to play as much as possible. Now that situation has been solved, would you be good to go to accept a call up if you were selected to the senior national team?
“Yeah definitely, playing for the national team has been a dream of mine. It was really tough to turn it down when the Gold Cup came around but now I’m working for it and that has been one my biggest goals I’ve had since coming to Montreal since becoming a professional has been to make the national team.
“Especially now with the way that John Herdman is running it now – it’s very well organized and everybody wants to be a part of it because it’s going in the right direction.
“That’s something that I’m working towards and hopefully it’ll come.”
2017 and 2018 were transitional years for you. What changed in 2019 to break into the XI to have the year that you did? How do you maintain your spot in 2020 where it will be more competitive?
“I think the main thing that changed was my mentality and confidence in myself. This season I really realized how important it’s to have the right mentality and the right discipline to push yourself and believe that you are as good as anybody else in the league and the team.
“I think that really helped me to have a breakout season. This year will be just as hard to keep my spot. I know that, so I’m gonna have to bring it even more. Raise my level, raise my standard and just be a good professional and keep pushing myself with the other players I’ll be competing with and be a better player and hopefully get more time on the field.”
Tell me about adaptation off the field — for people who maybe don’t know what it’s like to live somewhere of a different language than yours. Are you fluent in French? How was learning it?
“I wouldn’t say I’m fluent yet but at first I had to learn a few phrases and now I’m able to speak in French a decent amount I think.
“In terms of adjusting; Montreal is an amazing city because it’s not only necessarily French, it’s predominantly French but you can get away with speaking English.
“I think the main thing was adjusting to living alone. It’s just a big culture shock to move away from home into a different environment and to kinda be out on your own. That took a little while to get adjusted to, but it’s been three years now and I’d like to say I’m well settled here in Montreal and enjoy the life here.”
Your parents are from Bangladesh. Can you talk a little about your background and how that’s shaped you as a person?
“They came here as immigrants and for me, I was raised to value my culture. Moving away made me realize how important culture is to me and hanging on to it even more now that I’ve been away from them.
“On top of that, they’re the ones that have really pushed for education. I think that’s something that’s very popular in South Asian culture. So that’s what why I’ve been doing that because it’s something they want and I find interest in it too.
“But, yeah, all the values I learned from them being able to come from South Asian culture is something that’s really important to my heart for sure.”
You’re currently studying an engineering degree, as you mentioned, at Concordia University. How tough is it to balance that with being a professional athlete?
“Yeah, the reason I decided to go into engineering is because I’ve always been interested in school. That’s also the way my parents raised me to value school and I followed that.
“I realized that’s something I enjoyed, so I wanted to do it while I was still in soccer because soccer isn’t gonna be there at the end of the day when I’m 40 or 45, and it’s nice to have a backup — engineering is something I enjoy; the math and the science behind it.
“It is difficult to balance with a professional career, obviously, but I think if you have the right mentality and discipline to hold yourself accountable then you’re able to do the work when you need to.
“Doing your homework on time, studying the right amount for your exams and staying on top of everything. It is possible, it’s difficult but you just have to be really organized.”
What was your favourite moment from last season? And what can we expect again from this group this year?
“I would say my favourite moment from last season was winning the Canadian Championship. It was really special because we had to play against a lot of different teams.
“We played against York and then vs Cavalry, so I think just because there were more teams involved it made it that much special and for me personally.
“I came from a place where after we got the new coach I kind of didn’t have as important of a role as I did before. So the Canadian Championship Final against Toronto FC was a chance for me to bounce back and help the team. That’s what I did and thankfully we won. It was amazing to experience winning my first trophy.
“I think for next year we know what we have to do — [perform] much better in Major League Soccer.
“The main goal is to qualify for playoffs and after that, anything can happen. I really think our team can go far in the playoffs.
“For me, it’s not just a matter of making playoffs, it’s how far we can go. I think we can all push if we have the right group and mentality.”
In the Concacf Champions League, the Impact will face Saprissa of Costa Rica In the first round…
“Yeah it’s exciting, I mean will be cool to be a part of the Champions League. It just means a lot more games for the club so I think we’re gonna need a full squad and will need a lot of depth.
“Everyone will get a chance to play and it will be exciting to experience that tournament. Montreal has a huge history in it and hopefully we can replicate that this coming year.”
And that history, what would it mean to play in front of a sold-out Olympic Stadium – 60,000 fans wearing blue as happened previously?
“Hopefully we can achieve that again. It would be awesome. I remember watching that game on TV [Champions League Final vs Club America in 2015] and it was crazy. The fans here in Montreal are amazing so if we can get a sold-out crowd of 60,000 at the Olympic stadium it would be nuts and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
“Hopefully we can achieve that, make the semi-finals, finals and have some good success in the Champions League.”
What’s kept you so humble over the years?
“I don’t know what exactly it would be. I guess I like to think there’s always more that I can do. I haven’t really achieved anything yet. So just being how far I can push myself — I think that’s what’s really keeps me grounded.
“I’m not really worried about what I’ve done, more so what how much more I can prove myself and push myself to be a better player, to be a better person and to do better in school, stuff like that.
“I think it’s the way that I was raised by my parents. They never really boosted my ego. Let’s say I came back from writing an exam and I got an 85% and kind of like a joke they’d say: ‘why didn’t you get a 90%?’
“It was a joke obviously but it’s something that’s stuck with me. At the end of the day you can always do better, so it’s about pushing yourself as far as you can go and just be happy in that regard. That’s what I try to follow in every part of my life.”
Do you have a role model?
“Tough to say. Obviously, my dad and my sister. My sister is in medical school and does a lot of work and my dad is an immigrant and came here — has a good job. Now got his PhD here.
“For mentors, I’d say there are a couple. Jeff Paulus being obviously one. Len Vickery was a huge mentor for me at the University of Alberta coming from club soccer before I got into the academy. Those are the two main coaches, and Eric Munoz as well.”
USports — you’re one of very few players to have made it far in their careers historically speaking. Now they’re being drafted into the Canadian Premier League. How crucial is that to give them an opportunity and to prove that there is talent that’s worth scouting like in your case?
“I think it’s huge, it’s great that the CPL has taken in the initiative in including USports draftees into the professional league. Because at the end of the day, USports is a very competitive league and there a lot of good players in it that shouldn’t be overlooked.
“It’s just gonna continue to help the development of soccer in Canada and the CPL because there’s a lot of kids that are talented in USports that wanna finish their education and decide to go the university path that are still good enough to be professional soccer players, so It’s really important that they have the opportunity to showcase themselves.
“I’m sure we’ll see a lot of USports athletes play in the CPL and from then move on to some better league, maybe in MLS, this year and in the future, so It’s exciting and it’s a good concept that they’ve implemented.”
Mauro Biello has been looking extensively for players for the U23 Qualifier Tournament in Mexico this March/April. Do you project yourself to be there and is the ambition to qualify to Tokyo Olympics?
“Yeah I hope to be a part of the group and we definitely want to qualify for the Olympics. With the group of players we have, I think it’s very possible and hopefully, we can achieve that.”
Featured image – impactmontreal.com