Ottawa, ON – It’s fun to be the team on top, isn’t it?
To be “that team” that everyone is talking about. To be the team that everyone thinks, “Maybe they’ll do something special.”
For the last two weeks, Atlético Ottawa has ridden high as the talk of the early 2022 Canadian Premier League. Back-to-back wins over Cavalry FC, and Halifax Wanderers gave the CPL’s youngest club their first winning streak in club history and some buzz for the first time in a while that perhaps Carlos González and his new Atlético side could make some noise this season.
It isn’t fair to say that Ottawa’s 6-1 loss to Valour FC on Sunday afternoon erases everything that came before it in a season that is just getting started only three games in. Yet, for an Ottawa side so focused on escaping the ghosts of last season’s finish at the bottom of the CPL table, it was a reminder that no matter how much you climb, if you let yourself slip up, it can be easier than you think to fall right back down.
For the first time this season, both sides on the pitch at TD Place had multiple U SPORTS Soccer alumnus in their 18. For Valour FC, despite Tony Mikhail sitting for a red card given last week in a 3-2 loss to Pacific FC, Brett Levis (Saskatchewan) made his ’22 debut while Jacob Carlos (Ryerson) and Matteo De Brienne took spots on the bench. There was a new U SPORTS face for Atlético Ottawa as 2022 U SPORTSxCPL first round draft pick Jose Cunha (Cape Breton) made his Atlético starting debut while Zach Verhoven (UBC) was once again on the bench.
It was an afternoon that started similar to the previous two weekends as the first 10 minutes passed without incident. The first “ghost” of the 2021 Atlético Ottawa finally found its way onto the pitch, though, in the 12th minute, as Moses Dyer was taken down in the box and awarded the first penalty kick against Ottawa in 2022.
Atlético led the Canadian Premier League in penalty kicks allowed in 2021. Despite some post-game questioning from Ottawa head coach Carlos Gonzalez of the validity of the penalty, Dyer slotted it past Nathan Ingham to end his shutout streak and give Valour the 1-0 lead.
As the minutes ticked off in the first half, though, it was clear Ottawa was not at the same level they were a week ago on both sides of the ball as they led the possession but had no shots on goal in the first 25 minutes and in minute 26 it was William Akio finding Alessandro Riggi in the box for his first as a member of Valour FC to give them a 2-0 lead.
Maxim Tissot got one back off a Jonathan Sirois own-goal that deflected off him, off the crossbar and into the net to make it 2-1 with five minutes until halftime but suddenly though for five minutes, all of the defensive structure that Ottawa had built in the first two games vanished.
“We didn’t manage well the three minutes that were left in the first half, we were in the game, but we reacted like if it was the three minutes left in the game, not the three minutes if the second half was still going to happen and we still had 45 minutes to get back,” head coach Carlos Golnzález said.
In the 40th minute, after forcing Ingham to make a great save on Akio, the ensuing corner found the head of Rocco Romeo and made it 3-1.
They weren’t done, though, as Valour pressed into the box and saw Ottawa’s defensive effort crumble in a way that didn’t feel out of the ordinary to the Ottawa of a year ago. Ultimately it was Riggi picking up the rebound and burying his second of the half as Valour went into halftime suddenly up 4-1 instead of 2-1.
According to coach Dos Santos, it had been a slow start for Riggi, who joined Valour from Halifax Wanderers, but it was a breakout performance on the afternoon.
“He gave me an answer, and every time he drops from what he did today, in his work in his intensity in how pragmatic he was on the ball and decisive, now I’ll show him, I’ll go back to this every time he’s deviating from it,” Dos Santos said.
Any hope of the second half magic that Ottawa found the last two weeks very quickly vanished in the 50th minute when Akio, who blasted his own chance at a goal off the left post just before Ottawa scored to cut it to 2-1, threaded a perfect pass on the run to Moses Dyer who buried his second of the afternoon and pushed the game to 5-1.
By the time Brett Levis was able to execute a perfect run in the 69th minute right through the centre of the box and send a bullet past Ingham to tack on a sixth goal, it was over.
Levis, a midfielder with just one goal to his name in 2021, was not the person his coach expected to pull off a goal like that.
“I asked him during the game, ‘Hey Brett, you scored that goal. I didn’t know you had that,’ and he goes, ‘me neither, it’s the best goal I scored in my career.” Dos Santos said.
For an Ottawa team that looked to be gaining steam through two games and the first 30 minutes on the day, it was a gut punch but a departure from a season ago, one they believe they’ll move on from.
“I think that we are the same team, same coach, same players, that we won two rounds, you have a global vision is that we have still six points, we are second in the league, but still we have to analyze what happened today and we have to improve it,” González said.
Valour FC left the afternoon with three points and a new single-game club record with six goals. The hardest part now is the team realizing that they aren’t going to set a new single-game club record every night.
“Things started well for us, and there are games where it won’t, so how do we respond to that” Dos Santos said. “I just want us to stay grounded; I want us to understand that we have a blueprint, and the day we deviate from that, it’s gonna be difficult.”
It can be challenging to keep a clear head after a blowout game, whether a side wins or loses. The fact is, though, there are still 25 games left in the 2022 Canadian Premier League season. Twenty-five chances for Atlético Ottawa to prove that this afternoon was an aberration and for Valour FC to prove that it wasn’t.
Ollie Bassett joined Ottawa from Pacific FC following their championship season in 2021 and has seen the end of the tunnel in a way that neither Ottawa nor Valour have gotten to reach.
“You know, six out of nine, it’s not the end of the world; it’s still an ok start,” Bassett said.
“I think we’re second in the league right now, but to me, that doesn’t really mean anything because there are 25 games left, so there’s a very long way to go, and we need to improve on what happened out there; today.”