Thomas Nef spoke to Montreal Impact goalkeeper James Pantemis for WFi. They discussed his current loan spell in the Canadian Premier League with Valour FC, his future with the Impact and the prospect of representing his nation at the 2026 World Cup.
If you hadn’t joined the Montreal Impact academy in 2014 as a 17-year-old what do you think you would be doing now?
“I honestly have no idea where I would be, the way my career played out was really interesting, because it was a dream of mine to go play professionally when I used to go to watch the Impact as a kid. I always wanted to play on that field. I was the guy who would always go with the flow wherever soccer took me.
“I also had a couple of offers to go to the US for school on a scholarship. But for me, it was always just about enjoying the ride, and if it did come to an end I would be grateful for where it took me, and thankful and lucky to join the Impact and get my reps with the first team.”
When you joined the academy, you were almost 18 and ready to either go pro or choose a college career. You mentioned you had NCAA offers, what convinced you to go for the pro contract?
“It was a very interesting situation when I joined the academy. I only had one more year left obviously. At the time, I still had the option to play for the reserve team, FC Montreal. I was still in school, doing my studies and the academy season was going well but unfortunately, in the end, I had a big injury. So that put a big question mark on whether or not I would come back 100% and when I did come back, FC Montreal was no longer a team so I had to make the jump from the academy to the Impact.
“I was very fortunate with the staff at the time. My goalkeeping coach at the time, Jack Stern, believed in me and saw something in me prior to my injury so he brought me along to the training camps. I had my surgery in the summer of 2016 and my first training session the following February. I had about three months of training and I had a contract the next July. I was very thankful for everyone involved in getting me back into shape and the club for trusting me to come back 100%.”
U-23 Olympic qualifying was supposed to start in March in Mexico but has now been postponed. Looking back at Toulon as a moment, Canada did better than expected. Looking at that provisional roster, do they have enough quality to qualify?
“Yeah, I think so. In Toulon, no one believed we could compete against the top teams. I think that was due to not only the players but the system that’s in place and this new program John Herdman has put into place. Everybody has invested in the idea of the ‘new Canada’.
“For example, in Olympic qualifying, even though Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David weren’t there we had a very solid foundation with a strong youth pool that has gelled. We focused on what we had learned and we were very optimistic going into that tournament and I’m looking forward to it.”
Qualifying tournaments go by really fast with a lot of games in a condensed period. You were the projected starter in Mexico before the pandemic hit. How do you prepare for such a hectic schedule?
“It’s tricky, it’s not like a regular season, it’s a couple of games a week and you have to focus one game at a time. Recovery is essential, whether that’s stretching or cooling down. You get very lucky with all the staff and medical team we have that make sure we’re in top condition for every game. You’re playing in the heat every day at a high level where you can’t make any mistakes. Making sure you eat well, sleep well and recover well, stretching, pool sessions or foam rolling, you have to put yourself in the best situation to perform.”
What kind of coach is Mauro Biello like from your experience with him?
“It’s always nice seeing a familiar face when you go to the national team. You feel more at ease when you go to the camp, having worked with them in the past is a bonus for me. Mauro follows the guidelines and structure John put into place and since he’s worked with the first team, he knows how to make the jump and we’re all ready to get started.”
In the past couple of off-seasons, you’ve trained with Serie A club Bologna. With a Greek citizenship and passport, is Europe a long-term goal of yours?
“Yeah, I think the luxury of the Greek passport opens things up for me. My number one objective is to play for my city (Montreal) and if my career takes me abroad then again, another bonus. As I said, I like to go with the flow and see where soccer takes me. I’ve been going to Italy for the last couple of years and I really like the environment I’ve been in. I see the level and what it takes to play there and I think I need to master North American football first before I can go over. That’s how I view things.”
What has been your biggest takeaway from other goalkeepers you’ve worked with over the years, such as Evan Bush?
”Knowing Evan for many years now and being with the first team regularly, you see the level of professionalism he brings on the field and off it. The way he takes care of his body, the way he prepares, the way he trains. Things that will help me along my career and ensure I have the longest career possible. I’m very thankful for all he’s done over the years, I feel like he took me under his wing being someone who lived nearby and we carpooled a bit too. So just getting to know him on a different level.
“I’ve seen other goalies as well, Max Crépeau who I was in the academy with a couple of years ago and the national team. He’s someone I look up to as well, as someone who went on loan then went to start. I think it’s an admirable step for him in his career. I try to take everything I can from everyone and mash it up into my own game.”
Do you think your CPL loan with Valour FC can do the same as what Max Crepeau’s loan to Ottawa Fury did for him?
“Yeah, well that’s the hope. I’m looking forward to getting my games in and going back next season to try and win that number one spot. I think Max [Crepeau] laid out the groundwork for us and that’s the goal.”
You played against York9, and were on the bench for the match vs Cavalry in the Canadian Championship last year. What do you think of the quality of play and how does it compare to the USL?
“I think I speak for a lot of people when I say we were surprised by the level of play in the CPL. Question marks were obviously raised at the beginning of the year. I watched many games, I had a lot of friends who played in the CPL, playing Cavalry in the next round who were the top team with Forge and it was a really good level.
“Again, considering we were an MLS team and we were expected to be at a higher level, they gave us a run for our money. This goes to show that regardless of who you have on paper, the mindset and work ethic I saw of the CPL players was great. I think the level is going to keep going up as well, I think the signings have been very impressive.”
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I know you touched on this as well, but do you envision yourself being Montreal Impact’s number one in the future?
“I do, I think that’s the goal right away. Of course, there are certain steps in becoming that number one. It comes with experience, hopefully, with this season kicking off, I get a certain amount of games under my belt and next year I prove my worth. Watching goalies at Saputo Stadium play, wanting to be in that situation playing week in, week out. That’s what’s motivating me right now, playing for my home city, in front of my friends, my family.”
You’ve said before that it would be a dream come true to play in the Olympics. Due to so many players not being able to come in for qualifying due to FIFA windows, how many of those guys do you think would translate to the Olympic team from the qualifying team?
“Well, I hope the core group would be able to be there, even though we’re missing the star players like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David. I think the core group deserves their chance to go to the Olympics as they were the reason behind qualification. That’s the sport at the end of the day. It’s unfortunate sometimes. When you qualify, sometimes changes come but I think it will be important to keep the dynamic of the group because we created such strong chemistry in the group stage and hopefully we bring that when we qualify.
“I wouldn’t expect that many changes, you’re allowed to bring three senior players as well that’s up to the coaching staff to decide. I’d say that I’d be very happy with the majority of the players moving in because you’re comfortable and established in the style.”
You’ve recently been involved in international camps in Barbados and California and will get the chance to showcase yourself and play regular minutes at club level. You’ll be facing Marco Carducci in the CPL, does that mean whoever performs better goes to the national team?
“I don’t go into the season thinking if I play well, I’ll go to the national team. I just need to focus on myself and my performances and things will come. If I focus on my game and the things I do best, I’m more than confident that I’ll get the opportunity that I deserve. Whether that’s coming back and playing for Montreal the next season or being called up to the men’s team again, I’ll be grateful for both.
“I’m not going into games thinking to outplay certain people. I need to focus on myself and like I said, I’ll get what I deserve. I think that’s what has been lacking for me, getting consistent games and essentially getting my feet wet. I’ll get those constant games now, which is important.”
The FIFA 2026 World Cup on home soil is six years away. It’s a real possibility you could be there as part of that 23-man roster. How do you see that?
“It’s something I’ve kept my eye on, it would be the ultimate dream really. Representing your country at the World Cup in your home. I think that everyone dreams about it growing up as a kid.
“I suppose it’s realistic. Again, it starts from now, getting myself games this season and, hopefully, I keep progressing upwards, keep performing and if all goes well, I hope to be on that roster.
“You never know, there could be young ‘keepers in the pool, ones coming out, we don’t really know for a fact what will happen in six years but I’ll be putting the work in year after year to meet my goal. The chance of being there is motivating, knowing that it’s coming. You can mark it in your calendar and it can be that thing you strive for.”