Super day for Highlanders star Callum Montgomery in MLS draft

Defender Callum Montgomery from Lantzville, a graduate of St. Michaels University School, heard his name called by FC Dallas fourth overall in the first round Friday of the 2019 Major League Soccer SuperDraft and had one overwhelming reaction.

“There were a lot of nerves at first, and then my jaw just dropped,” said the six-foot-three backline standout from the Victoria Highlanders of the USL Premier Development League.

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As perhaps it should have as the Islander became only the third Canadian to be selected in the top five in the history of the MLS draft, joining 2015 first overall pick Cyle Larin to Orlando City and 2013 third-overall selection Kyle Bekker to Toronto FC.

“This is such a special moment for me and my family,” said Montgomery, by phone from Chicago, where the draft took place.

The 27-time Canada-capped Larin is now with Besiktas in the Turkish Super Lig while four-season MLS veteran and 18-time capped Bekker recently signed with Forge FC from Hamilton in the new Canadian Premier League, so who knows where this will all lead for Montgomery?

“I want to be in the system or on the roster,” he said, of his 2019 rookie pro season ambitions.

“FC Dallas has a new coach and a great academy in a great city. This is tremendous opportunity.”

And one which he should be able to take advantage of because he seems to have it all. Tall and sleek back-line players, who can not only defend but also start attacks with quick and accurate outlet passes, are not easy to find and Montgomery’s perceived value was evident by his high draft placing. FC Dallas said it went for talent, not roster need.

“We felt our strategy was always to pick the highest value, the highest ceiling, and if it happens to be what you need, fantastic,” said FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez, in a statement.

“These are two picks [Montgomery and FC Dallas 10th overall selection John Nelson] that fit into that category. They’re both players that we think will be important for the depth chart. I see that they have a mentality that they want to learn and to be students; and while they’re fighting they’re going to adapt.”

Wherever the journey goes, it’s been an interesting one to get to this point. Montgomery grew up playing soccer in the Nanaimo area before moving down-Island to finish his schooling at SMUS. He went on to have an outstanding NCAA Div. 1 career at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, graduating last season by being named Conference USA best defensive player, first team all-American and as semifinalist for the Hermann Award as NCAA player of the year in leading the 49ers to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The son of Island doctors, the biology major had an eye on a medical career, but that is now obviously on the back-burner while he pursues his dreams on the pitch.

Montgomery played with the Highlanders during summer breaks and became a team leader over three seasons, captaining the Victoria PDL squad the past two seasons.

“There are so many people within the Highlanders and North Carolina-Charlotte systems who helped me along in my development and put me in this position to be drafted,” he said.

Montgomery plays with two titanium plates in the upper cheek as the result of a cleat to the head that left him knocked out cold on the field near his own goal during a Highlanders game in 2017 at Centennial Stadium. The tripod fracture ended his PDL season early that year but hasn’t altered his style.

“I don’t remember it,” he said, of the scary moment. “But it hasn’t affected my play and I’m still sticking my head in there to knock away the ball in those situations.”

Montgomery is the fourth player to have played for the Highlanders and been selected in the MLS draft, either before or after their Highlanders tenures. They include Riley O’Neill of Campbell River, 34th overall to the Colorado Rapids 2007; Josh Heard of Victoria, 71st overall to the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2016; and Matt Polster from Las Vegas, seventh overall to the Chicago Fire in 2015 and now on the verge of making the Glasgow Rangers.

A self-described late bloomer, Montgomery was hardly sought after in Grade 12 at SMUS and accepted from NC-Charlotte about the only NCAA offer he received. Montgomery was never part of the Whitecaps Academy or a part of any Canadian programs at the U-17, U-18 or U-20 levels. But now, he will almost certainly give national team head coach John Herdman something to think about.

Montgomery credited former Highlanders Academy coach Steve Simonson for “taking my game to another level.”

During his post-draft news conference, Montgomery said: “I’m the kind of guy who comes in every single day and wants to work and work hard. I set my goals and I’m ambitious in trying to achieve my goals in all aspects of my life. I’m super excited to get down there [Dallas] and every single day focus on what I can do to get better.”

Montgomery’s selection began a big day for Canada in the 2019 MLS draft with a record three Canadians picked in the top 10, including national team U-20 goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair seventh overall to Minnesota United and Tajon Buchanan of Mississauga, Ont., to New England Revolution ninth overall.

As part of MLS and Canada Soccer’s homegrown player initiative, Montgomery, St. Clair and Buchanan will be eligible to play as domestics and not count as imports in the MLS, which is considered the U.S. domestic pro league, despite its three Canadian franchises. Players become eligible for the homegrown initiative if they have come through a Canadian youth program, which Montgomery did with the Highlanders Academy and Vancouver Island Wave.

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