Karl Ouimette was 10 when he gave up hockey to chase his soccer dream.
It took less than a decade to become a professional player with his hometown Montreal Impact, signing last June as the first member of the club’s academy to be promoted to the Major League Soccer team.
Now, if only temporarily, he’s a starting centre back for the undefeated club that has surged to first place in MLS.
That puts two local talents in the first 11, along with veteran Patrice Bernier of Brossard, Que., who is having a standout campaign at holding midfielder.
Bernier not only grew up playing hockey, he made it to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as a defenceman for Rouyn-Noranda before moving full time into his best sport, soccer.
The six-foot 175-pound Ouimette didn’t wait that long to make his choice.
“I had to decide, but soccer was my passion,” the 20-year-old said. “I loved hockey as well, but I had to choose with the schedules and everything.
“I was a forward in hockey, but when I was young I was a striker as well in soccer.”
Ouimette made his first MLS start and played the full 90 minutes last week in Montreal’s 1-0 victory at home over the New York Red Bulls.
He replaced injured former AC Milan star Alessandro Nesta and played alongside another former Italian Serie-A defender, Matteo Ferrari.
“They talk to me a lot and give me tips,” said Ouimette. “It’s a quick start, but you have to keep your feet on the ground and do your job. I have to keep my focus.”
There were a few minor stumbles, but the Terrebonne, Que., native held his own. He will start again in that spot when the Impact (4-0-0) visit Sporting Kansas City (1-1-2) on Saturday.
He even had a chance to score, but didn’t get much on a header to the far post on a second-half corner kick.
The performance made him the centre of much of the media attention after the match.
Coach Marco Schallibaum said the challenge now is to keep him humble for what should be a tough test on the road.
“It’s not easy for a young player,” said the Swiss coach. “He had a good game and some media came to speak with him and put this (pressure) in his head.
“But he’s intelligent. He knows (playing) is good for him but he also knows that he must start like last Saturday. I trust it’s not a problem.”
It’s clear the team has confidence in Ouimette.
Normally, fullback Hassoun Camara moves into the central defence if Nesta or Ferrari is hurt, but Schallibaum elected to keep the French veteran at right back and play Ouimette in the middle.
And despite injuries to Nesta, Nelson Rivas and Dennis Iapichino, Montreal agreed this week to loan another member of the defence, right back Zarek Valentin, to Norwegian second division club Bodo Glimt. That showed Ouimette has moved up the depth chart.
“For Zarek, it’s a good opportunity to play in Europe,” said Schallibaum. “He’s still our player. Maybe in six months or more we’ll have a player back who is more than he is today.”
Nesta will miss the match in Kansas City but could be ready when the Impact move outdoors to Saputo Stadium to play Columbus on April 16.
That would put Ouimette back on the bench, but the experience of starting can only help him grow as a player.
“He’s a quick learner, but he still has a few things to learn,” said left back Jeb Brovsky. “It’s a different game going from the academy to MLS, but he’s adapted very well.
“He’s got mentors all around him. With Ferrari and Nesta in his ear every day, you’re bound to learn something. He’s a good athlete and we’re fully confident in him.”
Goalkeeper Troy Perkins suggested Ouimette be more vocal on the field.
“Especially in that position, but he’s got two great guys to learn from in Matteo and Alessandro,” said Perkins.
The Impact appear to be eager to promote home grown players.
Ouimette got it started last season, when he played mostly reserve team games but got in 66 minutes over two appearances for the MLS squad.
This season two Quebecers, goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau of Greenfield Park, Que., and defender Maxim Tissot of Gatineau, Que., as well as French-born midfielder Wandrille Lefevre were signed from the academy.
Ouimette was good enough to play for Canada’s under-17 squad, and now he is leading the way for other young Quebecers to make it in the pro game.
“If I can be taken as an example and show young Quebec players that soccer is a thing you can succeed in, it’s good,” he said. “I don’t really think about (pressure).
“For me, nothing’s achieved (yet), so there’s no pressure.”
Another player in the Impact’s system, defender Aron Mkungilwa, was called up Thursday to the Canadian under-17 squad for a camp March 30-April 4 in Florida. Canada will play in the CONCACAF U17 championship in Panama beginning April 6.