Ottawa, ON – “This is the kind of opponent that we like, good teams that come here to put us in tough situations.” Atlético Ottawa head Coach Carlos Gonzaléz at practice availability this week.
So much of this young 2022 Atlético Ottawa season has been about change. Change in the roster, change in the technical staff, as Coach Gonzaléz has said, changing the “ghosts” of last season’s last-place finish.
With change can come growing pains, as Ottawa very clearly demonstrated at home a couple of weeks ago, but change can also bring new successes, as the early results this season have shown as well.
A Saturday night 1-0 loss against Pacific FC in May in the fifth game of the season won’t make headlines a month from now. It might end up being around the 25th or so most remarkable game in this 28-game season. Still, for 90 minutes, Atlético Ottawa kept the top team in the Canadian Premier League relatively under control and, even in losing, continued to lay the groundwork for what hopefully will be more memorable games to come later on.
Pacific FC travelled to Ottawa for the first time ever with the 2021 Canadian Premier League champions on a slight cold spell following their three-game win streak to open the season. They took the 0-0 draw against FC Edmonton two weeks ago and dropped a 2-0 decision to Cavalry FC last week.
Meanwhile, coming home off a 2-2 draw against York United FC last week themselves, Atlético was not only looking to get three points but perhaps re-establish a little comfort at TD Place. It was that last time on their home pitch on April 24 that was – not fun – to put it lightly. They took one of the most lopsided Canadian Premier League losses in history in a 6-1 loss to Valour FC.
It was just one U SPORTS representative in the lineup combined for both sides in former UBC Thunderbird Jordan Haynes for Pacific FC as José Cunha (Cape Breton) and Zach Verhoven (UBC) did not dress in the 18 for Atlético.
Early on, it was another respectable performance from Ballou Tabla. After picking up his first Canadian Premier league goal a week ago against York, he found himself with some of the best chances for Ottawa on the evening, including a 21st-minute break that saw him find a free lane up the right side before cutting in and forcing a diving save from Callum Irving.
The 29-year-old Irving had quite a comeback game in Ottawa. The keeper spent three seasons in between the sticks for Ottawa Fury FC before the club folded in 2019 and gave the TD Place faithful quite a re-introduction, picking up ten saves on the evening, including multiple diving grabs as Atlético controlled the majority of shot opportunities early.
“I was looking forward to this game a lot when I saw the schedule come out,” Irving said. “This is a place I enjoyed playing for three years, enjoyed playing in front of the fans for three years, still have a lot of friends here, so I was looking forward to this game.”
A week ago in their first loss of the season Pacific FC held the majority of possession and of the chances but couldn’t convert against Cavalry FC. It was a similar but slightly different result against Ottawa as they once again held the majority of possession at 62-37% but couldn’t seem to turn anything into opportunities. After 25 minutes they were without a shot attempt and by halftime, they had just two attempts and none on target.
“I think we got into good situations, we created opportunities in the first half but their wasn’t the last act, the final act.” Pacific head coach James Merriman said.
When you’re good enough though you sometimes just need one opportunity to strike and Pacific finally found it in the 72nd minute when Alejandro Díaz buried the rebound after Manuel Aparicio whistled off the left post past Nathan Ingham.
Although it looked to be just onside, coach Gonzaléz saw differently and was given a red card and sent off early for arguing. Their coach stepping off seemed to send another spark through Ottawa as Tabla picked up another chance as did Malcolm Shaw but Irving kept them all out.
With 23 shots, and ten on target but nothing to show for it, it might look like ghosts of Ottawa’s past. Of a team being unable to finish when it counts, but they are not looking at it like that.
“I think we would be more concerned if we weren’t creating the opportunities, so I think it’s just a matter of finishing the chances we have” Atlético assistant coach Kwesi Loney said. “The fact that we created as many chances as we did today against a good side in Pacific shows the quality that we have going forward.”
Ottawa now takes a break from Canadian Premier League action as Canadian Championship season has begun for 2022. They see York United FC come up to TD Place for the first time in 2022 on May 10, while Pacific FC has a bye to the second round and waits to play the winner of Vancouver Whitecaps and Cavalry FC.
Early on in the season it can be easy to draw wild conclusions from game to game. For Atlético Ottawa that temptation is no different. When they got their second straight win to open the season it could be said they looked like world-beaters, but when Valour trounced them the next week the conclusion could be that they look even weaker than the last place side of a year ago.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to hold onto early in the year is perspective. Atlético Ottawa left the night without points but they left with a lesson of how a championship team in Pacific closes out a tough win and year moves forward and the games get tougher that knowledge is priceless.