Whether he was scoring goals from the halfway line, slaloming through defenders, or playing pinpoint through balls with the outside of his boot, Sean Rea was a fixture in Canadian Premier League highlight reels during the 2022 season.
Those were just the, well, highlights of an outstanding campaign by the 20-year-old midfielder with Valour FC. For his efforts, he earned the CPL’s U-21 Canadian Player of the Year award, was a nominee for the league’s Player of the Year, finished fourth in voting for Players’ Player of the Year and broke the league’s assist record with nine.
In 2023, Rea is looking to take the next step in his career, finally breaking through into the CF Montréal first team and proving to be a key player for them this season. With the start of the MLS season just around the corner, early signs out of preseason are very promising, including the goal he scored against the Houston Dynamo in a friendly earlier this month.
“It’s the first time in preseason where I feel like I’m really part of the team,” Rea told CanPL.ca this week. “Like I’m going to help the team this season and make a difference. So I’m really happy with how things have been going and I just can’t wait for Saturday, for our first game.”
That first MLS regular season match on Saturday, against Inter Miami, is three years in the making, as Rea spent the last two seasons out on loan with Valour from CF Montréal after signing out of the club’s academy. After a respectable first season in Winnipeg, where he scored twice and added four assists in all competitions, Rea flourished in his second campaign.
“Having that second season to really show that I can actually make a difference and score, assist and do what I need to do as an offensive player it really gave me a confidence boost,” he said. “I’m really happy I had the second season to prove to myself that I can play at a higher level.”
Rea thinks his two seasons in the CPL are a lesson for any young player who comes into the league on loan or looking to reignite their career. Having the right mentality, he says, is everything.
“If you do really well only good things will come out of it for yourself,” says Rea. “That’s how I looked at it, the first season I didn’t really feel like going on loan, but the second year I really embraced it.”
On top of the assist record in 2022, Rea led the league in chances created with 71, and in completed crosses and corners with a stunning 62, almost double the output of second-place José Escalante (34). Playmaking, Rea says, has always come naturally to him.
“I prioritize that final pass, I really look to always play forward and really look to get that ball into the last third and I think that’s very important,” he said. “If you always think side-to-side, playing backwards, you are not really making the play advance. As an offensive midfielder the most important thing is to give those key passes, so that’s really what I have been trying to bring into this preseason is that I’m really there to give that last pass, that shot on net, or whatever it takes to get into that final third and to get that scoring opportunity.”
He added five goals in 2022, and, as mentioned, many were of the highlight reel variety. That, in many ways, is a byproduct not only of Rea’s incredible skill but also his philosophy for the game itself.
“At the end of the day you are playing soccer, you are here to have fun,” says Rea. “In the last third, you’ve got to take risks, if you don’t take risks there’s nothing that will come out of it. I would say to try it, even though the odds of success are low. You’re playing soccer at the end of the day, you want to give the fans pleasure, you want to make people happy. I think that’s what it is all about.”
After bringing fans to their feet in Winnipeg, Rea will now be looking to do the same in his hometown of Montréal. Going into this season, it looks like he will have every opportunity to do so. Gone are key attacking midfielders Djordje Mihailovic and Joaquin Torres, while Matko Miljevic is expected to miss multiple months with a knee injury.
“It’s up to me to train hard, do what I need to do in training and then it is the coach to make a decision at the end of the day,” Rea says. “But I am making sure that every day I’m giving my 100 per cent on the field and doing everything I can to show to the coach, the players, that I can make a difference for them this season.”
Adding to that opportunity is new CF Montréal head coach, Hernán Losada, with whom Rea says he has instantly clicked. He finds the 40-year-old coach, who had a solid pro career as a midfielder himself largely spent in Belgium, incredibly approachable and focused on helping his players to improve.
“You can tell he wants his young guys to succeed and he has been telling me a lot of positive things and what he wants from me, and what I have to do on the field to get into this lineup,” says Rea. “I really appreciated the fact that he knows how to talk to his players, so I really appreciate that, and that’s going to be really helpful for all the guys to have a coach that you know you can go speak to — you can have a conversation with. He’s really there to help you improve.”
While he won’t be back with Valour this season, Rea says he will be following the team, as well as the Canadian Premier League, from afar. He is forever grateful for the opportunity the league afforded him to develop and now looks forward to many years of others following in his footsteps.
“I’ll be watching,” he says. “I have a lot of close friends on that team, like Rayane Yesli — I can’t wait to see what they do. Guys in the league, Rocco Romeo who moved on to Vancouver… I’m going to always keep an eye on the league because I’m sure great things will come out of it. Players are going to grow and only good things are going to come for Canadians.”