MONTREAL — Karifa Yao, the Montreal Impact’s newest homegrown signing, isn’t completely used to his new environment. On his way to Centre Nutrilait, the Impact’s training center, Friday morning, the 18-year-old headed for the under-19 locker room instead of the first-team facility.
Nevertheless the centerback from Laval, Quebec, just north of Montreal, had to quickly adapt to his new situation. Yao suited up on June 5 — the day his signing was made official — for the Impact’s game against the Seattle Sounders.
Yao did not expect to make the bench for a Major League Soccer game on his first day with the Impact, but exceptional circumstances made it happen.
“There was a bit of nervousness, but at the end of the day the guys had a good mindset,” Yao said of his experience. “It’s a good group, so the guys quickly welcomed me and quickly put me in the thick of things.”
Yao admitted that his nervousness was more of an excitement to finally make it to the MLS level.
“I work five days a week over at the academy specifically to get to this moment,” he said. “I was very excited. It was a moment I was looking forward to. I couldn’t wait to discover and see what was going to happen.”
Prior to signing Yao, head coach Rémi Garde invited the young defender to train with the first team on a few occasions. One player Yao sees as inspiration for his game is fellow centerback Zakaria Diallo.
“Already physically, we’re pretty similar. We’re both tall and bulky,” Yao said. “We also have a good first pass. We’re both solid on both offensive and defensive duels, so he’s the player I would describe myself as most.”
Yao’s 2019: A season of ‘highs and lows’
As a member of the Impact under-19 squad, Yao is the first to admit that his U.S. Soccer Development Academy season wasn’t smooth sailing. At the start of the campaign, he suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss two months and a possible chance to join the Impact’s preseason camp.
Yao rehabbed and was able to play in nine of the u-19s USSDA games, starting seven. The 18-year-old, who had joined the academy from Laval’s Étoiles de L’Est, proved himself to the Impact front office.
“When I came to the academy three years ago, my objective was to sign a contract and it’s mission accomplished,” Yao said. “I’m very proud and on top of it it’s in my hometown, where my family and friends are, so it’s a big honor and source of pride for me.”
After joining the 18 on his first day with the first team, Yao will rejoin the u-19s for the USSDA playoffs. The Impact will take on Sporting Kansas City, Sacramento Republic and the Columbus Crew in the group stage.
“For me, the objective is to bring back the cup,” Yao said. “We will put our best efforts. Our standards are pretty high, so we’ll leave with good objectives and get good results.”
Loan deal: No conversations yet
For now, Yao doesn’t know what’s in store when he comes back from the USSDA playoffs in July. A loan away from Montreal is possible, but no conversation with the front office has taken place. Yao’s focus will be on gathering as much experience from his teammates as possible.
“For now I don’t know yet, maybe a loan,” Yao said. “I know that there are a lot of people at my position, so I will try to gain experience and learn from the veterans.”