Preview 2020: Everybody’s Second Team Edition

I think everyone is starting to fall in love with Ottawa a bit. I am starting to fall in love with this team a bit, even though I was originally a bit sour about them back in February when Atletico Ottawa’s1That is probably the only time I’ll use the full name, folks. It’s just so incongruous–the words don’t got together. There’s the Latinate Spanish and the brutally-Anglicized-originally-Algonquin Ottawa. Ottleti, however, has a very nice natural ring. existence was announced so late.

I mean, this is just great. The fans are going to make this team.

It’s very Atletico, actually. Always the second team in Madrid. Never quite as big or glitzy as Los Galacticos. Usually competitive, always a tonne of fun.

Ottleti are CanPL’s first foreign-owned club, a continuation of the trend that’s seen clubs treat themselves as global “brands”. It is not, generally, a good thing, in my view, and indeed the Ottawa branch will serve as a developmental team of sorts for Atletico Madrid, as these clubs generally do.

Some are more functional and locally aware than others, to be sure, and Atletico do tend to operate on that end side of the scale, as it did with its other satellite club in San Luis, where the larger Atletico enterprise likewise rescued a team on the brink of folding. CanPL is also holding firm on the strict player quotas, which means Ottleti can and will extend its development focus to young Canadians. That could benefit both the global engine and the Canadian game. That is how this should work.

Ottleti’s late announcement in February looked rushed and maybe a tad opportunistic, but it also meant fans had continuity from the suddenly-if-not-surprisingly defunct Fury regime. It also meant the club was going to have to build a roster in about six weeks.

Then Covid hit, Ottleti got stuck in preseason in Spain, and 2020 became a weird shortened season. This is extremely good news for an expansion team.

They’re still going to be bad, especially this year and probably in 2021 as well. The club still has only a bare bones roster, but it’s mostly Canadian and very young. We are going to see, in Charlottetown, a 16-year-old get real minutes. A bunch of early-20s guys who likewise haven’t had a shot are going to get a second–or first–chance. A few CanPL guys who didn’t do all that well last year are going to get another hurrah, too, because this is an expansion team.

It will be very bad, likely. But I can’t wait to see it.

Key Additions

Well, all of them. They only have 17 guys signed and that includes a couple of key guys who haven’t been able to get into Canada yet, so it’s more like 15 guys, half of them complete rookies. Why not? This is what 2020 is about.

Of the above categories, Kunle Dada-Luke, Michel Djaozandry, and Malcolm Shaw are the young Canucks who need a chance. Matteo di Brienne and Gianluca Facchineri are teenagers. Ben Fisk and Ajay Khabra are looking for a fresh start in CanPL.

Key Departures

None, yet, though it’s probably safe to assume this team could look quite different in 2021 once it’s had a full winter to get in touch with players, particularly the mid-tier Canadians who make up the middle of most rosters in this league.

It remains to be seen, too, if Tevin Shaw and Oseh Bernardinho ever join the team. Hopefully they can as Shaw, in particular, is a really intriguing Jamaican international.

Key Players

Francisco Acuna (attacking midfielder)

Acuna was a first for CanPL, along with Pacific’s Alejandro Diaz: a player direct from Liga MX. He didn’t come through Atletico San Luis, either, which some people (including me) thought Ottleti might use to source talent. That’s a very good sign for the league.

He’s 32 but he’s hung around the best league in CONCACAF for well over a decade with some really decent clubs, mostly recently Puebla. He’s never played a lot but he’s not some new-club-every-year journeyman, either.

Given his age, it’s likely he’ll be one of a very young team’s leaders and probably also a translator for any Spanish loanees (and maybe the head coach, Mista, too, though he’s learning English). He’s never been a big goalscorer but a player with his experience can bring skill and vision even if he can’t bring speed. Acuna mostly plays off the right but I would not be at all surprised to see him centrally for Ottleti to help link everything else together. A new team needs someone to do that more than most.

Ben Fisk (left winger)

Fisk was one of Pacific’s bigger names in Year One, and like most of those bigger names, didn’t manage to hold his roster spot ahead of the younger players Pacific values. He’s still only 27, so not exactly ancient, but he’s now on an expansion team and it’s fair to say he needs to do a job for them in a way he didn’t last year out west.

What Fisk offers is just a simple transition game followed by a reasonable cross. He can get defenders backing up. Keeping it simple is smart for an expansion team. Fisk is not going to do anything fancy and he’s not going to be move up Atletico’s system, but he will put in a solid performance no matter what and he will mentor and shelter some of the younger guys. He’s a bubbly personality and can do the interviews when Ottleti are under siege as easily as he can be a useful outlet for clearances.

Viti Martinez (central/defensive mid)

Martinez is one of only a couple Spanish imports. He’s not an Atleti system guy, but he’s only 22, has mostly bounced around the Spanish third division as prospects of that age do, and could potentially move up if he can show his potential in Canada.

While he’s here, he’ll probably be the key cog in Ottawa’s central midfield, especially given the absence of Tevin Shaw. Shaw was a #6 and Martinez probably would have partnered with him as the #8, but he might have to play a bit deeper. His yellows/90 rate in Spain is astronomical, so he definitely has the requisite bite. Losing Shaw robs Ottawa of what could actually have been one of the better central combos in the league, but it means 16-year-old local phenom Antoine Coupland gets to play on PEI, so why not?

Tactics and Positioning

Shape-wise, Mista’s roster had been looking something like a 4-2-3-1 before Covid forced a reboot. Ottawa have so few players signed that he’s going to have to experiment a bit in Charlottetown, but that doesn’t matter. This is more about establishing a basic identity and getting some tactical ideas ingrained, all without any real pressure. Seriously, an expansion side couldn’t ask for much better.

All of this is a total guess, though limited somewhat by the complete lack of any depth. There are two forwards on the roster, both of whom have basically zip in professional experience. The club has been loosely linked to former Forge striker Jace Kotsopoulos, however, as well as League 1 Ontario star Maksym Kowal. Both would fill a need.

With Bernardinho gone, Fisk will have to play on the left, which means Acuna probably has to play off the right for now because there’s no one else. He won’t be able to play every minute of every game on PEI, though, so we’ll see some experimentation.

We’ll also see, I suspect, a lot of minutes for the youngsters. Doing a whole second lineup is tough because Ottawa only have a few guys on the bench right now, but here’s what it looks like if you swap in as many teenagers as possible.

Here’s hoping they do this. Just go all out with the kids. See what happens.

As a competitive vehicle, it’s pretty ugly. There’s just no second option at either fullback or right wing. Centre-back is a glaring weak spot no matter who plays–Facchineri’s an 18-year-old with one MLS game for Vancouver, Djaozandry’s an Impact academy grad, Brandon John, who at 26 is the veteran of the group, has been wandering the lower levels of American soccer for most of his career.

Strengths

Youth. There’s no guarantee, but one of these kids could show that he’s been missed by everyone else. That’s the purpose of CanPL and it absolutely needs to be part of the purpose of Atletico in CanPL.

As with Pacific last year, the lack of depth and developmental focus is in part a byproduct of the (even more) rushed launch. Pacific also did a lot better than I thought they would last year, mostly because guys like Noah Vehoeven, Zach Verhoven, and Terran Campbell, who’d all been struggling in USL, turned out to be pretty decent players who just needed actual minutes.

Weaknesses

Aside from the youth and the lack of depth, I wonder a bit about Mista as a coach. He’s essentially a rookie, too, not so different than Michael Silberbauer, another former European international who’d only had a short spell as an assistant.

His only experience in North American soccer is his disastrous spell with Toronto FC, though he did actually score in the CONCACAF Champions League, so there’s that.

Still, Canadian soccer is a very unique challenge, even more so than MLS, and I’d have loved to see a club with developmental focus pick up a young local coach–there are good options even in Ottawa. I’m negative on these global branding clubs generally, but they can bring opportunities for coaches to get in on a system at the ground level, which is how Jesse Marsch ended up managing a Bundesliga side. That kind of coach development is desperately needed in Canada.

Wildcard

I’m not really sure there is one. The whole 2020 season is a wildcard. Whatever it means for the rest of the league, for Ottleti, it’s a complete experiment. Anything that happens will inherently be a surprise. That’s the fun of it.

Predictions

Somewhere at the bottom–it doesn’t really matter. The only real standings-related question with this team is how many teams will take full points off them. It’ll probably take 10 – 12 points to secure passage to the second round. Ottawa are not getting close to that, but if they can steal a draw from a team like Pacific, Halifax, or Edmonton they could actually play a big role in who moves on.

(Unfortunately, given goal differential is likely to matter a lot, other teams will also have an incentive to run up the score when they can.)

That’s not the point, though. PEI is about the fun. Canadian teenagers will get real minutes, the fans will have something to cheer and chat about, and the club can have it’s real start in 2021 with a proper home opener and a lot of the uglier start-up work already completed.

About Dylan Matthias 161 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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