Ottawa, ON – It isn’t every day that the final score of a win can almost feel like the least important part. Yet, as Atlético Ottawa kicked off their 2022 Canadian Premier League season on Saturday against Cavalry FC, what happened actually on the pitch almost felt secondary. When the final whistle blew, the score read 1-0 for Atlético Ottawa in what was ultimately a relatively quiet game on the pitch, but it was off the pitch that was a victory for everyone involved.
Under the afternoon sky at TD Place, thousands of fans covered the south-side stands in red and white (5390 to be exact), but this time with an important layer of blue and yellow.
Following their first announcement on March 28, Ottawa hosted their ATOxUkraine afternoon supporting Ukraine. Pre-game saw the Akord Ukrainian Men’s Choir of Ottawa sing the Ukrainian national anthem (and for what might be a first for North American sports, only the Ukrainian anthem as in solidarity, the organization held off singing the Canadian anthem.) Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada Yulia Kovaliv came out for a ceremonial coin toss.
For Cavalry head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr the pre-game definitely stuck out. “To come out to the Ukrainian choir, I thought was a lovely touch for Ottawa to do that,” Wheeldon said. “It’s a sad part of the world right now, and it’s nice to show support, as little as we can do.”
It really was a one-of-a-kind atmosphere pre-game, but finally, with specially designed blue and yellow kits set to be auctioned off in a post-game fundraiser, the whistle blew, and the 2022 Atlético Ottawa season was underway.
There was only one U SPORTS player on Atlético in former UBC Thunderbird Zach Verhoven. Ottawa opted not to renew the contract of former York Lion defender Matthew Arnone following the 2021 season or bring back MacEwan Griffin Jaeden Mercure. For Cavalry, Mount Royal Cougar commit midfielder Victor Loturi drew into the lineup while former Winnipeg Wesman goalie Tyson Farago sat out of the 18.
The two teams ended 2021 in very different positions, Cavalry in second in the Canadian Premier conference, Atlético in eighth, but as they say, a new year is a fresh start and early on, it was Atlético finding the chances. Ten minutes later, Ballou Tabla wiring one off the crossbar to give Atlético the best early strike. The former CF Montreal mid-fielder signed a three-year deal with Atlético in February. In the sixty minutes of his Canadian Premier League debut, that early chance was his best.
The rest of the half saw back and forth play as Diego Espejo, and Sergio Camargo picked the first yellows of the season. Ultimately, it was a quiet half for both sides, with Tabla’s shot was one of the only ones to come close, and by the time the halftime whistle blew, it was 0-0.
“I felt that we did a good first half,” Atletico Ottawa coach Carlos Gonzaléz said. “I think in the first half the team, although we were nervous in the first minutes and some moments we’d lose the ball very easily, I felt it was a good first half.”
As time shifted forward and the afternoon sun slowly peaked over the clouds covering the pitch, the second half started with more of the same. Two teams that were seemingly hellbent on waiting for each other for the full 90 minutes, with neither one pressing but neither making a mistake.
That meant it was a quiet game in the net for Nathan Ingham. The keeper, who travelled up the 401 from York United FC to take over the net for Ottawa after the departure of Dylon Powley, only came close to being challenged a handful of times as Cavalry ended the day without a shot on net. A 63rd minute chance from Joe Mason went just by the left post for Cavalry, and a Malcolm Shaw 68th-minute header forced Julian Roloff to be sharp in the Cavalry net.
Finally, in the 82nd minute, Atlético got a little bit of luck that had seemed to escape them through much of 2021.
A ball in the box found its way onto the foot of Miguel Acosta, who wired it on the net, but before it could get there, it went straight off the left hand of Cavalry’s José Escalante. That allowed Brian Wright to step up to the penalty spot, and just as he did six times in 2021, the 27-year-old buried it past Julian Roloff to give Atlético the 1-0 lead.
Perhaps as a show of the soccer gods not wanting to be too kind to Ottawa at once, four minutes after their goal, captain Drew Beckie was given a booking and sent off for stamping on the foot of David Norman Jr. That might come back to be a problem against Halifax next week but for now, Atlético Ottawa open their 2022 season with a win, and that was valuable for them.
“It’s important to get that first win, especially at home, and we’re trying to keep our home a fortress, so we don’t drop points at home,” Wright said.
It was also the first regular-season game in charge of Atlético for Carlos Gonzaléz after the organization moved on from Mista in the 2021 offseason. The 35-year-old worked his way up through the Atlético Madrid system but came to Ottawa via Kuwait, where he spent the last two seasons coaching the Kuwait U-23 national team. Coming into a program that finished last in the league in 2021, getting the first win in front of the second-largest crowd in club history was significant for the coach.
“We were very happy to give the fans the first win. I think it’s so important to create this relationship between the club and the fans,” Gonzaléz said.
In many ways, the results on Saturday really were secondary to the open display of solidarity and support for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Still though, under the weight of the unique moment, Atlético Ottawa found a goal that, on many nights in 2021, they just couldn’t seem to get, and at least for one afternoon that this year, for the red, white and blue faithful who make their way to TD Place, this year might be the start of something new.