Sophomore Year: Ottleti 2021 Preview

I want to see TD Place this full for soccer, Ottawa fans. (Photo: Steve Kingsman via Ottawa Redblacks)

Atlético Ottawa only had seven games in their first-ever season, so it seems fair to consider the coming 2021 season something of a second first season. It’s a bit that way for the league as a whole, after all.

Not that Ottleti were bad in 2020. They finished tied with Valour for sixth, below Winnipeg thanks only to coughing up four goals against them. There were more than a few bumps like that, but CanPL’s only expansion team so far also played fun, free-flowing football, mostly built around the league’s best player in Mexican Javier Acuna.

That style is likely going to change, not least because Acuna is gone. Instead, Ottawa have pivoted to a much more conventional expansion build, and a smart one, around a pile of lesser-known Canadians with something to prove. It is not going to be sexy, but as constructed, this team should be better.

They will, at some point this fall, play in front of fans for the first time. Until that happens, Ottawa are playing with house money. They’re the only team that’s been able to put together a full pre-season ahead of this pandemic-contorted tournament, and have had to a chance to try a few things in games against lower-level teams in Spain. They will be coming in more fit than most teams, with some familiarity pre-built, and should roll up some points early, at least.

This is still a project. The most loyal fans in Ottawa will have watched last year online, but they’ve also watched a lot of Fury teams over the years, and those teams have tended to draw best when they were winning. That is where Ottawa needs to get to.

It won’t happen overnight, and nobody is under any illusions that Ottawa will be good in 2021, either. But this team was always going to have to develop an identity beyond Acuna, and beyond any imports parent club Atlético Madrid might send on loan (of which there have been very few, so far, likely due to the pandemic).

It is really quite astoundingly rotten luck for a club to begin life in the midst of Covid-19. The challenges for year two, to my view, are mostly off-field: ride the wave of re-opening to a solid initial fan-base, win some games, and build on that.

A gritty team full of long-in-the-tooth Canucks can do that.

At 33, Jordan Webb is a veteran of the Singaporean league and the perfect signing for an expansion team. (Photo: Matt Zambonin via Atlético Ottawa)
Key Arrivals

It was predictable enough that Ottawa would move on from most of the year one team. A good chunk of them were, after all, signed days before the PEI tournament began, halfway to emergency fill-ins who will always have the distinction of being Ottleti’s inaugural side.

The only real pattern to this winter’s signings was each leaking, usually in hilarious fashion, well before being announced. Drew Beckie showed up wearing an Ottleti kit in a Saskatchewan expansion video. Ryan Telfer announced his arrival himself months before the club got around to it. Chris Mannella leaked on a roster aggregator site.

Many of these are intra-league moves typical of an expansion team as Ottawa seek to build a solid core out of players who deserve a bit more faith. Goalkeeper Dylon Powley and winger Zach Verhoven definitely fit that bill, and both Telfer and Mannella are cast-offs from whatever York is trying to accomplish this winter. Both, I think, have more to give.

There have been a couple of late loanees from Atlético Madrid–in keeping with tradition, arriving after I’d already written most of this preview. Alberto Soto is the most highly-rated, but it’s worth noting that a.) he’ll likely have to quarantine before playing, and b.) he’s still played mostly youth ball, albeit at a very high level, with his professional minutes coming in Spain’s fourth division.

Miguel Acosta and Rafael Nunez are also byproducts of Atlético, or at least its scouting network. Of the three, only Acosta is likely to start, though Soto might be an intriguing option in games where Ottawa want to play on the front foot.

We’ll likely see more of those moves when the pandemic is over, but Ottawa were always going to need to find proven Canadians first, and that’s what they’ve done.

I do like that Ottawa managed to retain 2020 contributors like Milo Kapor, Ben McKendry, and Brandon John. Those guys now have an idea what this team wants to be and what level it will need to achieve. Ottawa also got key internationals Tevin Shaw and Oseh Bernardinho into the country. It’s actually a pretty established, experienced group.

Key Departures

Acuna went back to Liga MX after getting an offer from Necaxa, which is par for the course with journeyman players. Even if he was only in the league for a month, he still left a substantial impression on it, both in terms of skill–we are a ways off having regulars in CanPL who can pass like he did–but also commitment. He came into a new league, played on turf in PEI every three days, and carried an expansion team on his back. He set a level every international arrival should aspire to.

Also gone are guys like Ben Fisk, Ajay Khabra, Malyk Hamilton and Mo Kourouma, all of whom showed flashes in 2020 but in the end didn’t set any level anyone could aspire to, at least not consistently. Of them, the only one I wish Ottawa had kept is Kourouma, who did after all score the team’s first-ever goal.

There’s no replacement #10, and there’s no replacing a player like Acuna in this league. Sensibly, Ottawa haven’t swung for the fences with some academy kid from a big-name club using 21st Club. Instead, they’ve built a front six that’s workmanlike, physical, and Canadian.

Key Players
Ryan Telfer, left-wing

Telfer was supposed to be one of the biggest players in CanPL. Initially on loan from TFC, then signed outright by York9 in 2020, he hasn’t been anywhere near as impactful as hoped.

He broke out in OUA, then had a good year with TFC II, which got him signed to the first-team. He scored that winning goal against Orlando, and also the first goal in CanPL history. But he’s only managed nine more with York, across nearly 40 games–by no means bad, but never the pure goalscoring threat from the wing York needed him to be.

This is a big season for Telfer, who replaces Fisk on the left, but who’ll have to fight with Bernardinho for minutes. I tend to think York mis-ued him a bit, and that he’ll be more suited to the wide forward role I expect he’ll play more of for Mista this year. Ottawa need him to put up six or seven goals, though, and be the kind of threat with his direct running that he wasn’t often enough in York. Too often, Telfer settles for a low-percentage final ball, or ends up off-balance attacking the box. One-on-one, though, he’s still a dangerous attacker in CanPL.

I wrote a very similar blurb for Fisk in last year’s preview, and his career is probably over now.

Viti Martinez, central midfielder

I put Viti here last year, too. Expansion teams are always a bit of an extended try-out, and Viti, a player from Spain’s lower leagues, stuck.

His role behind Acuna was a bit different than what he’ll be asked to do this year, where he’ll have to pick up the considerable playmaking slack from the Mexican’s departure.

It’s a big task facing him, but one he’s suited for. Martinez is really more of a free #8, but he scored a huge goal for Ottawa last year and was dangerous on multiple occasions.

He’s also been playing all winter, mostly off the bench, with Alavés B in Spain. It’s not a terribly high level compared to some CanPL players who’ve gone on loan this winter, but he has played and a whole lot of this league is pushing a year without a game.

Tevin Shaw, defensive mid

Shaw is perhaps the best player who couldn’t get in the country last year due to border restrictions. He’s a Jamaican international with six caps, CONCACAF Champions League experience, and real minutes in the Jamaican Premier League.

We haven’t seen him yet, so it’s obviously tough to pin exactly how he’ll factor, but 2020 Ottleti with Shaw aren’t giving up twelve goals and aren’t finishing on eight points. Given how close the standings ended up, it’s quite possible 2020 Ottleti with Shaw are in the second round.

Even if not, one of the key problems for Mista to solve was a tendency for his team to get pulled apart in the defensive third, especially in transition. Shaw, who sits in midfield, breaks up play, and distributes quickly, will help mightily with that, and could also be key to advancing Ottawa up-field on counter-attacks. Which as we’ll see….

Tactics & Positional Depth

…Ottawa are going to be all about getting the ball forward fast and then letting big wide forwards bully opposing defenders. This is going to be such an unsexy team compared to last year.

That’s not a knock. Last year was “pass it to Acuna and see what happens”. More often than not, despite Acuna’s vision and passing range, not much happened because Ottleti were way too passive, waiting for something to happen rather than creating it themselves. Every so often, Acuna just got fed up and tried something himself. Some of the time, it worked, and that was Ottleti.

I doubt there’ll be any passivity from this group, particularly in attack, which is a who’s who of workmanlike producers from lower league football. There’s a fair bit of Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC approach in Ottawa’s roster, a system that is almost always competitive, often on the cheap, by pressing in smart places and going direct to three strong, fast wide players as soon as possible.

In Jordan Webb, Shawn-Claude Lawson, and Brian Wright, Ottawa have three Canadian forwards you’ve probably never heard of, all of whom have put up real numbers at their previous clubs in, respectively, Singapore, Detroit, and Birmingham.1Wright may be the most familiar, a New England Revolution draft pick who never really caught on. I always end up confusing him with Brian White, who’s just joined Vancouver. White, who’s American, is the more proven player, but Wright likely has more to give at a level that’s not MLS. Throw in Telfer and returnee Malcolm Shaw and you have a group that’s got well over 300 professional games and about 150 goals between them.

(Webb also has the best personal website in CanPL. Somebody at league office should pay him to re-design the league website. I am entirely OK if CanPL.ca changes its motto to “Born. Breed. Superstar.”)

You can line those guys up in a bunch of different ways, but behind them, Ottawa also have three more defensive midfielders, so I’d put a fair bit on three direct forwards up front. Wright probably edges Lawson to the #9 job, but Lawson had 51 goals for Detroit in NISA and NASL, and I’d imagine Mista will go with whomever is scoring.

This is a solid CanPL line-up, with some flexibility if Mista wants to tweak either the midfield or front line.

That midfield is, I’d argue, one of the better three-man units in CanPL. Mannella was injured for the most of the 2020 tournament2In these parts, we refer to it as the Potato Cup., so essentially joins Ottleti having last played for Ottawa Fury, which is a nice little loop.

Mannella can certainly get forward, but is primarily a #8. So is Viti, though I’d expect him to push slightly higher, maybe even into more of a 4-2-3-1 if Bernardinho plays on the left and inverts to help in possession.

In poaching Zach Verhoven from Pacific, Ottawa have both an excellent depth piece up front and probably a back-up full-back.

(I’m not going to re-do the graphic for Soto alone, but it’s safe to assume he’d replace Viti here, and he gives Ottawa some flexibility and depth. Nunez, who’s just 19, is a fairly straight swap with Verhoven.)

Defense is going to be the big question. There’s decent depth everywhere else, but in the backline it’d come down to young Montreal loanee Keesean Ferdinand, and there’s still no depth behind right-back Miguel Acosta or marauding left-back Vashon Neufville.

Misfires, especially at fullback, cost Ottawa dearly in 2020. They were far too easy to play through, especially in channels, where the team’s rotations looked, well, like an expansion team’s. Malyk Hamilton is off to his sixth club in six years for a reason and Jarred Phillips couldn’t make the jump to CanPL. The centre-back pairing of Milovan Kapor and Brandon John was better than expected but still awfully mistake prone.

That pairing remains an option, but is supplemented by another veteran Canadian in Drew Beckie (yes, Janine’s brother). He had a scary heart problem a few years ago but has been playing in USL pretty steadily, and is actually another connection not just to the Fury, but to the last time the Fury were good. He could start at right-back, but I think is more likely to displace Brandon John. John’s a solid #3 centre-back in this league, but not a starter.

In Neufville, Ottawa have one of the best attacking left-backs in the league, so they’re not going to be short on attacking options if and when they want to throw numbers up. The biggest thing for Neufville to learn this year–he’s still quite a young player–is when to stay back so he’s not caught by turnovers. Milo Kapor does not have the pace to put out those fires in the left channel and Neufville’s discipline on counter-attacks was not great at times last year.

When he gets forward, though, he’s one of the best left-backs in the league at attacking the box.

Projection: 5th

I think this team is going to be better than a lot of people think.

The system is simple but effective and Ottawa have signed pieces that make sense within it. There will be limited temptation to tinker. They drafted well back in January and, if they sign Chris Malekos and Reggie Laryea, are five deep at centre-back with lots of flexibility.3As of this writing, they haven’t signed them yet. Or, to put this is Ottleti terms, the signings haven’t leaked yet. They have precisely two spots open and will need every bit of depth they can get. Not signing them would be a strange decision, especially given both are decent prospects and Malekos is local. The Merchant Sailor Last-Minute Update™: It looks like Ottawa are going to make a strange decision and not sign them. That is bold given the team’s lack of depth at centre-back, and defensive struggles.

It is, as mentioned, not going to be sexy. They will likely have to outwork teams and outlast teams, and if the defense is as leaky as last year, this projection is going to look very silly, but I mostly rate Drew Beckie and Tevin Shaw to help patch that up.

Maybe I’m being a bit favourable because I like that this team has, thus far, been heavily Canadian even though it’s foreign-owned. In giving guys like Telfer, Wright, and Lawson a different kind of chance, Ottleti are serving Canadian soccer in a real way.

That’s worth cheering for. I know there’s some ambivalence in Ottawa, after the long, weird start to Ottleti’s life as a club. It may take a bit to come together, but once they get home they should get some additional energy and workhorse players often thrive on that. Even in 2020, they gave good teams a good run, and if things go well, they’ll give good teams a run for a playoff spot this year.

About Dylan Matthias 179 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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