Toros in the Cabinet

Nick Bontis in Ottawa
Canadian soccer in Ottawa: never a dull moment.

One of the greater tragedies of the Canadian Premier League’s five-year existence (it has a new logo now, of course) is the total dearth of political jokes about Atlético Ottawa.

So many, so obvious. Throw in the Madrid-level political stuff….1I will award bonus points for separatism, Quebec or Catalan. This is a crime and should be investigated, preferably by the standing committee on Canadian Heritage.

So you turn to The Merchant Sailor. We have our very own standing committees, held bi-weekly under the gunwales on stormy evenings, and smelling strongly of rum and codfish.

Anthony Housefather, in committee.

With only minimal public input2Unless you consider the CanMNT’s prize money and CanWNT’s coaching budget., Canadian Soccer Business and Madrid’s other team, who could cover Bev Priestman’s salary with just the money set aside for Diego Simeone’s disciplinary fines, have built a team that has legitimately overturned some Canadian soccer conventions while playing basically Atleti football — functional, bullish, and more forgettable than a policy brainstorm after the evening’s drinking is finished.

It was good enough to go all the way to the final run-off before a dubious performance against the league’s chosen successors in what amounted to a debate over tactics. Everyone knew Bobby was always going to win, but Carlos Gonzalez has now established himself very quickly in the wings in case Bobby makes the jump up to the federal level (otherwise known as TFC).

Departing that team are several key incumbents: the likewise oft-suspended Drew Beckie, the oft-injured Chris Mannella, and oft-Canadians Keven Aleman and Ballou Table, among some assorted backbenchers and disgruntled staffers.

Stepping Back to Spend More Time With Their Families

Elected Defeated
Aboubakary Sacko Drew Beckie
Karl Ouimette Ivan Perez
Luke Singh* Sergio Camus
Noah Verhoeven Keven Aleman
Gabriel Antinoro Owen Antoniuk
Jean-Aniel Assi* Abdou Sissoko
Sam Salter Ben McKendry
Gianni dos Santos Chris Mannella
Vladimir Moragrega
Brian Wright
Ballou Tabla

( * on loan)

As you can see, we’re down a few seats in the Leg’, and we’ve lost a few some real leadership in that group, at least according to the literature in my mailbox.

Ottletico have a task ahead to try and replace all of it before the next election, but there are some good young faces coming in and a lot of the departees were maybe just one scandal past being cabinet material. Beckie and Sissoko, however, were a huge part of the defensive platform.

The Nathan Ingham / Sean Melvin duo returns in goal, and should be about what it was last year — Ingham will win you a couple of games and maybe cost you one a season, and Melvin’s one of the most experienced back-ups in the league.

Miguel Acosta and Diego Espejo were stalwarts in their first full years, and both are back, with Espejo’s loan being extended. He’s a great example of what a perfect Atleti loanee looks like: he’s tough as nails and proved very quickly he can handle the oddities of Canadian soccer. Now he’s getting real and meaningful development in a first-team.

Like bad environmental policy, that affects more than just Ottawa’s place int he table, if the club can bear fruit as a Spanish cash-crop, there’s much more chance Atleti keep their asset in place longer-term, which is good for soccer in Canada.

Abdou Sissoko fled to the Kuwaiti embassy, so Ottleti have signed a guy with the same initials in hopes reporters won’t notice — a time-honoured ruse for a Friday afternoon when things don’t go to plan. Aboubakar Sacko fills the problem left-back spot no one wanted to deal with. Zachary Roy played there out of position and struggled. Zakaria Bahous wanted to be a midfielder.

Sacko has relatively limited real experience — he’s only 20 and has mostly played in Le Havre’s U19s with a few games in National 3, the French fifth division. But you can assume the Atletico hierarchy knows more than I do, here.3Hilariously, the Ottleti press release lists famous headcases graduates from the Le Havre academy such as… Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, and Dimitri Payet amongst its accomplishments. Not bad company if you like moody photo-shoots.

Given Sacko can play in midfield and there’s no other genuine left-back on the roster, I’d guess we’re going to see a lot of 3-5-2 again this year, with Roy spending more time in that hybrid role. It’s a development league.

You need centre-backs to play a back three, though, so Ottawa have also added Karl Ouimette and Luke Singh, both solid Canadian signings who are primarily centre-backs but who can play defensively on the left as well. Singh is a very rough-edged prospect who might have a higher ceiling, but his time in Edmonton last year saw him getting dropped repeatedly. He needs a big showing at a much bigger club this year.

Max Tissot will more likely play in central midfield, as he has the last few years, but he can play on the left, too, and his defensive capabilities are an ideal fit for Ottleti’s system. It’s not quite as vertical as the parent club, more sort of aspiring to it but surrounded by more scaffolding than the Peace Tower.

The Peace Tower, under construction.
In Halifax, we’d be waiting for this to blow over like a good scandal. (Photo: Government of Canada)

There’s not a lot of depth in the centre block, either. If Tissot or Carl Haworth get hurt (which is a safe bet, with them), you’re looking at Bahous, Noah Verhoeven, and a lot of teary apologies. I still like Verhoeven, who comes over from York, but he’s on his third CanPL club now and needs to show someone, somewhere that he can contribute consistently.

Ollie Basset is the guy Verhoeven has to beat out. I think he can — and he’s been playing a lot in pre-season, for what it’s worth. Basset’s a popular figure with a great personality, but not irreplaceable, and international players are the first to get hit with cutbacks. Competition at the #10 spot is a good thing for fans, though — if this team is going to evolve into more than a counterattacking threat, that’s where improvement is necessary.

The Olliewood Sign, outside TD Place.
Also a good thing for fans. (Photo: Matt Zambonin via CanPL)

Improvement would also help up front, where Ottawa just don’t score enough goals. Brian Wright has been replaced with Sam Salter, who had almost the same goals-per-minute as Wright last year and a lot of those were penalties. Pacific’s Gianni dos Santos also crosses the floor — he does a lot of sensational things but scoring is not one of them.

Both are basically wide players, with dos Santos more of a creator and Salter a wide target man. Jean-Aniel Assi is a more conventional winger who likes to go around guys and cross-examine. All of them play on the right side of the aisle, so I’d guess whichever is vaguely in form will pair up top with Malcolm Shaw.

The club is betting on Shaw to return to the style he showedin 2020 and 2021, when he put up twelve goals under Mista.4I just typed that as “Mistake,” which is apt., who has been memory-holed. Shaw’s a very good hold-up man, and much better at bringing wingers into play than Wright, but he only put up three goals last year. Carlos Gonzalez needs to find a way to get him the ball in the box, and in better better positions.

Tactics & Depth

Too often, those counterattacks, unlike Atletico Proper’s, are just down the sides or into easy channels. The clubs that do this kind of thing at the highest level do it by combining really quickly while in transition, thus opening up unpredictable spaces that become harder to defend than a Quebec slush fund. Ottawa, as Forge showed in the final, are way too easy to defend when you have even modest message control across the backline.5I was going to go for “backbench” again there but even I think that might be too much.

Shorter version: Ottawa really, really need a good #10.

This will look a little different depending on who’s asking the questions.

It’s not perfect — very few clubs in CanPL are truly two guys deep in any position — but it’s solid in every position. There’s a couple depth guys — MacDonnell Niba, CF Montreal academy prospect Gabriel Antinoro — who may contribute here and there but neither moves the needle much.

What it’s not, in any position, is particularly more than the counterattacking team it was last year.

I like Salter and think he’ll have every chance to push Shaw. dos Santos is okay as a creator but I dunno if he’s a 28-game lynchpin. There’s good flexibility in general, and they’ll be able to switch into and out of a back-four almost on the fly, but they could do that last year, too.


Of course, they finished top of the table last year and they’ve been on fire in pre-season 2023, too, including smashing up CF Montreal’s U23 team 6 – 1. But dos Santos scored twice and Shaw had a had-trick, though I suspect Montreal’s U23s were pretty patchwork.

Ottawa also had local players and solid university prospects Junior Agyekum (Thompson Rivers) and Tyr Duhaney-Walker (Acadia) in, so they are trying to get some younger players into the fold after barely meeting the U21 minutes threshold last year. Neither of them have contracts yet, but they got more minutes than Niba….

They weren’t as good in Spain, where the club typically spends a month or so in the early spring, losing handily to one of Real’s youth teams, though they beat Getafe B and drew an Atletico academy side.

They open this weekend against Wanderers.

Projection: A fairly charitable 3rd

Last year doesn’t matter in football or in Ottawa.

On paper, I’m not sure this team is actually as good as last year’s, and I didn’t think last year’s was actually as good as their record.

But Carlos Gonzalez is a very good coach, strong in development and skilled at getting those young prospects ready for match-day. Those are the two things you need in this league, moreso than great recruitment or even man-management, not that Gonzalez is necessarily bad there, either.

I think there’s every chance this defense is very difficult to break down again, and they have enough variety in the counterattacking options that someone should be scoring at some point.

It’ll be as entertaining as a committee hearing, but the polling we have here at The Merchant Sailor puts them very much in majority territory.

About Dylan Matthias 244 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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