EAST HANOVER – Connor Lade felt a little weird as he watched Montreal midfielder Dilly Duka dribble across on his TV screen Tuesday night. Lade, a Red Bull New York midfielder, enjoyed seeing Duka and the Impact succeed in the CONCACAF Champions League. They’d played against each other occasionally while growing up in Morris County, and in college. Now both are professionals in Major League Soccer, which starts its 20th season tonight.
While Lade got a kick out of seeing his former rival in international play at home in Morristown, Duka was thrilled with a video clip of Impact supporters chanting his name — the first time he’d actually watched that sort of cheering in his pro career.
A couple of days after advancing to the CCL semifinal series, Montreal opens up the MLS season Saturday in D.C., while the Red Bulls visit Kansas City on Sunday. Major League Soccer and its Players Union came to a new collective-bargaining agreement on Tuesday night.
“The fact that we advanced just brings our confidence level up,” said Duka, who grew up in Montville. “To be here for six years, six preseasons, that’s a long time. It’s my drive (that’s kept me in MLS). When it comes to training and playing games, I’m willing to put in the work on and off the field. I show my commitment.”
Both Duka and Lade are 25 years old, but Duka left Rutgers after his sophomore season and was the No. 8 pick in the draft, going to Columbus. Montreal is his third club, and he’s established himself as a starter at central midfield. Lade, a diminutive Morristown graduate who started at center back for St. John’s for four years, signed with the Red Bulls as a homegrown player and has had to fight for playing time since starting 22 of 26 games as a rookie.
Lade has seen time at outside back, as a wing midfielder, and at defensive midfield — which is where new Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch thinks he fits best.
“The one thing you always get with Connor is a good attitude, good professionalism,” said Marsch, a former Princeton University defender. “He’s definitely one of the guys we’re counting on with this team. … He’s competing for spots in the middle of midfield, but when we need him at outside back, he does well there. A lot of his qualities fit in well to the way we like (outside back) to be played: to be on the move and dynamic and covering ground and closing people down.”
Two other Morris County alumni were part of the Red Bulls’ preseason roster and traveled with the team to Florida. Defender Bryan Gallego of Kinnelon, who played in the Red Bulls Academy while growing up, signed with Portland as a homegrown player but was loaned out to two USL teams and eventually released in December. Goalkeeper Rafael Diaz, who played at Morris Hills and St. John’s, is still training with his hometown team — both the starters and reserve players who will likely become part of the Red Bulls’ USL-PRO affiliate.
“When I was playing, I was always doing it for fun,” said Diaz, 23, who spent last season with Orlando FC in the United Soccer League. “I thought, ‘I want to go pro,’ and a couple of times I thought it would be cool … to play for the hometown team. It wasn’t that it was impossible or out of reach for me. I felt like this is where I should be.”
Montreal will visit Red Bull Arena on April 4, Duka’s lone trip home during the regular season and date he knows by heart.
“It’s always good to see (Morris County players) riding through their careers and succeeding everywhere they go,” Lade said after practice on Tuesday. “Even (against them), in the back of your mind you’ll still be happy for them, but selfishly, you want to win those games.”