2022 CanPL Preview: Atlético Ottawa

 

It feels like this is the first real season Atlético Ottawa will play. It’s certainly the first one they’ll open at home, when they play Cavalry on Saturday. Yeah, there was a “home opener” last year, but it was in August. Not quite the same.

It’ll be nice to see Ottleti finally take flight. Nothing in the first two seasons has gone particularly well, perhaps inevitably given the club has had nightmare luck for its launch, in the middle of a pandemic. Atlético Madrid did a good thing saving the Fury at the very last minute — they took the same approach with San Luis — but it’s felt like they’ve been a step behind ever since. Maybe that changes this week.

Somewhat oddly, given all the tumult, Ottawa have quickly evolved a pretty clear identity as a club that will offer Canadian guys a second, third, or fourth chance — sometimes, maybe, more chances than strictly necessary, but it has, to be fair, worked alright at times. Mo Kourouma scored their first-ever goal. Ben Fisk was their first captain. Ajay Khabre and Malyk Hamilton were  among their first signings, and Drew Beckie was their first signing in 2021. I’ve tended to think, at the time, that some of those guys deserved another chance, and some took it. Others didn’t.

Unfortunately, Ottawa have a couple of bucket finishes to show for that loyalty. They were actually worse in 2021, on a points-per-game comparison, than they were in 2020. They cannot score goals, and they shipped nearly 50.

It was time for Mista to go. In 2020, with borders closed, I suppose there was an argument he was a good pick as the club’s first head coach. He spoke Spanish, had worked a bit with Atleti, and… that’s about it, really.

In keeping with the club’s tendency to announce signings way after most CanPL clubs, they didn’t name his replacement until late February. Carlos Gonzalez has an interesting background and approach, and there are plenty more reasons to believe he’ll do alright in Canada, but the hire still feels a bit like a parachute signing, like Madrid wanting someone they know rather than someone who knows Ottawa, knows the talent there, and knows Canadian soccer more broadly. Given CanSoc is on the up-and-up, it almost feels like a missed opportunity for the parent club.

(I wrote a lot of this post before Ottawa announced Kwesi Loney would be an assistant coach on April 5th. It’s a very good signing, and obviously helps address much of the above. I’d love to see a CanPL club give a successful USPORTs coach like Loney a head coaching gig, but it is worth mentioning that university coaches, especially top-tier ones like Loney, actually make pretty good money, and have much better relative job security than club coaches. Loney will stay with Carleton while assisting Gonzalez, which is good for Carleton, good for Ottawa soccer development, and good way for him to get exposure to the broader professional game.)

A lot of what Ottawa have done feels a bit experimental, like a 2019 CanPL build in a 2022 CanPL where it’s year four and teams are starting to really round out. The roster lacks any clear star power, or anyone like Javier Acuna who could elevate the whole team and do things nobody else in CanPL could pull off. Were I in Ottawa, I’d absolutely go check out the home opener, but I’m not sure what’s keeping me there through 90 minutes.1The club is also doing a “pay what you can” event for it, which is ehhhh. Now, it’s in support of Ukrainian relief so it’s a good cause — there is nothing this league loves more than to wrap itself in a good cause — but I always think the home opener should be a big ticket event. Maybe we’re not at that point yet, with Covid and with Ottleti’s development, but “pay what you can” doesn’t scream that we’re getting there any time soon.

It’s not a bad roster, and it’s a familiar one if you’ve been watching CanPL since day one. Nate Ingham’s in goal. Chris Mannella is back in midfield. Zach Verhoven is a lot of fun. These are all good players.

Former Fury star Carl Haworth is back, too, after a couple years in Indiana post-Fury-facto. Ollie Bassett and Max Tissot both land in Ottawa looking for minutes. That’s a good midfield.

Then you have the more… enigmatic pieces. Keven Aleman! A pair of CCAA guys! (Though Zachary Roy, out of Champlain College, has apparently impressed in pre-season.) A couple very young Madrid loanees will hopefully work out better than the last batch. And Ballou Tabla.

Gonzalez is going to have his work cut out for him, and not just because Tabla needs three psychics, a snake charmer, and an unopened bottle of century-old Greek retsina to motivate him to move up and down the length of the pitch. This collection of talent is more eclectic than a tapas spread at La Vicenté Calderon. There’s injury-prone. There’s a striker who doesn’t score very much. There’s a 19-year-old centre-back.

I have no idea what holds it all together, or if it is cosmically possible to hold it together, even for a guy who’s coached the Kuwaiti national team, which has to be its own psycho-memetic challenge. There are a hundred ways Gonzalez could put out a decent, functioning, probably even quite flexible line-up, much as Mista did and, yeah — less than a point-per-game.

Abdoul Sissoko playing in Turkey. (Photo via Creative Commons.)

The closest thing to a centre-piece is 32-year-old journeyman d-mid Abdou Wahid Sissoko. Gonzalez knows him from Kuwait SC, and he has a lengthy history bouncing around various yo-yo teams in France and Turkey. We’ve seen these kind of guys in CanPL before, and depending slightly on how much gas is left in the tank, they can do a job and do it well enough. I expect Sissoko will be effectively a player-coach, which isn’t a bad thing on an otherwise heavily domestic roster. He’s been around, knows the game, etc. However, with the possible exception of Dom Malonga, we haven’t seen any of these guys really carry a team, and a few have ended up being busts. It’s world football, sure, but Sissoko feels like a 2019 signing, a short-term stability piece, not someone Ottawa can build around long-term.

There are departures, too — a lot of them, some of which are guys who just ran out of chances, replaced by other guys on a last chances (like Aléman and Ballou). Sissoko probably covers for the loss of Viti, and Tevin Shaw never quite kicked on. Antoine Coupland went to Croatia, which is a bit disappointing — not for Coupland, but the basic idea of this Atlético Ottawa thing is the big club will develop young Canadians and move them up the pipeline. Coupland is still just 18 so only just able to move outside Canada, and it’s not a great sign if he’s leaving for a spot in a U19 side somewhere.

Draft Grade: B-

I am forever at a loss as to why Ottleti don’t do more with the USPORTs picks. This is an expansion side, in a pandemic, tossing out minutes to a lot of guys who have been, frankly, mediocre in this league, and a guy like Reggie Laryea can’t get a sniff?

There was some noticeable grumbling about it locally this year, too — soccer communities in Canada are fickle, and have been hurt by larger clubs before. Foreign owners would do well to bear that in mind. (Hiring Kwesi Loney goes some way here, though.)

All this might not seem like a “B-” sentiment, but Ottawa haven’t necessarily drafted badly, and they did sign 2022 first-overall pick Jose da Cunha. He finally got a chance to actually play in USPORTs last fall, and he’s still a tiny bit defensively naive, but his upside is obvious — he’ll immediately become one of the best on-the-ball centre-backs in the league.

I think some of the helter-skelter draft approach is down to the helter-skelter existence of the club so far. This is what I wrote about second-round pick Julien Bruce on the draft day liveblog:

This is a “we don’t have a coach right now and are going to take the guy who scored a big one in the final” pick.

There’s a tendency in the draft for teams to take most of their picks from the big teams they saw at nationals. I’m not saying Ottawa have to pick from Carleton every time — and hey, they’re a big university side too, maybe give the GeeGees a shot? — but there were players at Carleton who declared for this draft and who would likely have made more of an impact than some of the more marginal depth pieces on Ottawa’s roster, many of whom will not be back next year anyway.

Projection: 7th

There’s been some talk that Ottleti could be much-improved, but I think that’s mostly coming from Ottawans and, hey, if they’re excited, good. They deserve to be excited about finally having their team back in town.

I think even if Ottawa are much-improved — and they could be! — they’ll still be towards the bottom.The gap this year is going to be between 7th and 8th, not 6th and 7th. I expect this season to be much, much more competitive and close-fought. That’s where you miss star players the most, and Ottawa don’t have any.

The aim should be longer-term anyway, and I’d call 2022 a success if they’re better than 1.2ppg (which would actually make them close to a playoff team, last year) and concede a lot less often. The rebuild looks more defensively-inclined already, which is good.

I’m not sure there’s enough up front to expect more. Malcolm Shaw and Brian Wright are both decent players, but they’re very similar and they’re both in their late 20s — neither is likely to get a lot better. They combined for 16 goals last year, over half the team’s output, and neither sets up a lot. Ollie Bassett will nab a couple and Ben McKendry will redirect one into the net off something other than his foot at some point, but year. If Ballou doesn’t put up something like 6g/9a — and, at this point, that is not the way to bet with Ballou — there are going to be some long barren periods, much like last year.

This is usually where I’d insert an optimistic outlook for various young Canadians in a team, but Ottawa actually don’t have very many — barring some developmental signings, they’re going to have a really tough time hitting 2,000 domestic U21 minutes, especially as da Cunha won’t count.

In that case, the focus shifts to identifying the key veterans who can make good on their chance, who can then take this club forward to be more than just a salvage job. Giving out fifth chances is nice and all, but it’s been too long since Ottawa had a winning side.

About Dylan Matthias 205 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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