Montreal Impact's Jukka Raitala makes 'tough decision' to join Finnish national team

·3 min read

Choosing between club and country wasn't easy for Montreal Impact captain Jukka Raitala. 

The 32-year-old defender has been called up to the Finnish national team just as the Impact make a final push for a spot in the Major League Soccer playoffs. 

“It’s a tough decision that you have to choose," Raitala said on a video call Thursday. "(But) one of my dreams is to play for Euros next summer. And for that reason, I feel it’s very important to play national team games now.”

The Finns will travel to Paris for a friendly against France on Nov. 11 before playing Bulgaria and Wales in UEFA Nations League action on Nov. 15 and 18. 

Finland is second in its division with nine points in four games, a single point behind Wales. 

“Right now, the way the national team is, the quality we have in the team, the Euros coming next summer, those are very big for me and for the whole country," said Raitala, who made his national team debut in February 2009. "And at this moment to refuse to go, I don’t see how I could do that.”

Raitala expects to play for the Impact (7-13-2) Sunday when they face D.C. United (5-11-6) in their final game of the regular season. Montreal needs a win to clinch a playoff berth. 

Whether he will be eligible for the lineup if the Impact advance remains unclear. 

Last month, Raitala and Impact midfielder Lassi Lappalainen joined Finland for matches against Bulgaria and Ireland. Lappalainen did not return to the club, instead undergoing shoulder surgery in Italy, and Raitala had to quarantine for about nine days when he came back. 

The procedure for returning this time around hasn't been made clear, Raitala said, adding that he'll be "very sad" if he has to miss out on playing for Montreal. 

“Hopefully the league can work out something for the players who are willing to travel for their countries and maybe make it a little bit easier for the players to participate for those playoff games," he said. 

Raitala's long-term future with the Impact is murky, too, with his contract running out at the end of this year. 

The left back started his MLS career with Columbus Crew SC in 2017 before being selected by Los Angeles FC in the expansion draft. 

LAFC then dealt Raitala to Montreal in December 2017 and he's been a fixture on the roster ever since, featuring in 68 games for the Impact. 

“I’ve been happy (with Montreal)," the veteran defender said. "I’ve been enjoying these three years that I’ve been here so far. I’ve been honoured to be captain of the team. It’s been a fantastic achievement for myself. What happens after this year, I don’t know, honestly.” 

For now, Raitala said he's simply focused on his team's final regular-season game.

It's been a difficult year for the Impact. The club has just two wins since being forced to relocate to Harrison, N.J., because of border restrictions. 

Despite a rough run of play, there's still a positive atmosphere in the locker room, Raitala said. 

“We have a few more days and we’re almost there. It’s been a very long season, a lot of ups and downs, and now it’s really time to show that we can and will be a playoff team," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2020.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press