Ottawa, ON – Is it fair to say the Canadian Championship used to be kind of boring?
This isn’t to disrespect the Voyageurs Cup. Still, the reality is when a tournament is five teams (and with all due respect to pre-2018 FC Edmonton and Ottawa Fury, three teams), it makes it a little less interesting to see Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver over and over.
That’s what makes the new era of the Canadian Championship so exciting. Since the 2019 Canadian Championship, the tournament has expanded to 13 teams, with all eight teams from the Canadian Premier League and a representative from League1 Ontario and Première Ligue de soccer du Québec.
As the 2022 Canadian Championship kicked off on Tuesday night from TD Place in Ottawa, the night started as a slow burn of a game, but by the time York United FC walked away with the win in penalty kicks, 1-1 (7-6) over Atlético Ottawa, what started as dull quickly proved the value of the possibilities of the expanded tournament.
With a date in the quarterfinal, two weeks from now against Pacific FC on the line – who earned a bye to the next round by winning the 2021 Canadian Premier League title – Ottawa took to the pitch at TD Place under a gorgeous May evening sky looking for a bit of redemption. Saturday’s loss to Pacific saw them pepper over 20 shots on Pacific keeper Callum Irving but finding nothing in a 1-0 loss that pushed their winless run in the CPL to three straight games. Meanwhile, after gritting out a last-second 2-2 draw against Ottawa to close April, York picked up three points against Forge FC on May 6 as a Sebastian Gutiérrez 79th goal helped them to a 1-0 lead.
A heavy Canadian presence in both lineups meant the opportunity for U SPORTS as Dominik Zator (Calgary Dinos) took his traditional place on the backline, and Isiah Johnston (Cape Breton) joined on the bench.
Meanwhile, for Ottawa, Zach Verhoven (UBC) got a rare (for this season) start on the wing, while 2022 CPL x U SPORTS draft first overall selection José Cunha (Cape Breton) held a spot on the bench at kickoff.
The opening 30 minutes seemed to give credence to the possibility that a mid-week game between two mid-table Canadian Premier League teams might not be that exciting for a national championship tournament. Both Ottawa and York struggled to get any clean offensive chances until finally, York drew first blood.
It was Diyaeddine Abzi who finished a clean feed from a Lowell Wright, sending a missile past Nathan Ingham to grab the 1-0 lead in the 31st minute.
After six goals in the CPL 2021, the 23-year-old Abzi was held scoreless through five games of CPL play in 2022, so his coach recognized the value of him finding the back of the net. “I remember seasons when I played 15 games and hadn’t scored, and I was just kind of fighting it so to get a goal really always helps,” York coach Martin Nash said.
By halftime, it was 1-0 for York, and it looked as though Ottawa, after falling in a 3-2 battle in the preliminary round against Valour a year ago, was about to bow out meekly in 2022.
After halftime, though, Ottawa seemed to come out with new life, with Vladimir Moragrega whistling a shot just past the left York post. Although he opted against sharing directly what he told his team, Ottawa head coach Carlos Gonzaléz pointed out
“I think it was a clear game with first half time for York, second half time for us, we did much better in the second half, we put more attitude, we put more desire.”
It could be said a lot of that attitude stemmed from subbing on Malcolm Shaw and Carl Haworth in the second half. His best finisher doing half-game duty gave Gonzaléz a fresh pair of legs in a match that quickly became about attrition.
It paid off in the 61st minute as the two subs connected on a Haworth cross that found Shaw, and he buried it to tie the game at 1-1.
He got the goal but Shaw was quick to point out the importance of Haworth’s successful cross.
“Carl has that in his locker,” Shaw said. “I train with him everyday, I know the quality he has so I knew when the ball went out to him on the wing I just had to prepare myself, get in position, make sure I got on the end of it, and was fortunate enough to get a goal”
With new life for Ottawa and with both teams playing on short rest, the physical match started to wear on a tired York side.
“You could see after the 75th minute both teams started to get a bit tired, but they had their home crowd for a little more momentum there, so we just knew that we just had to ride it out.” York captain Dominick Zator said.
Ultimately, despite some late shenanigans that included a red card to the York bench for someone grabbing at the neck of Ben McKendry, the game remained tied and with the rules saying being tied after 90 meant going straight to penalty kicks, well, coach Nash probably put it best,
“It probably deserved to be a draw at the end of the day…penalties you throw it up in the air a little bit and see what happens,” Nash said.
With both sides holding their breath, it took until round eight for Ben McKendry to launch a shot over the bar and Cédric Toissant to slot it home and give York the 7-6 win on kicks and the right to punch their ticket to a quarterfinal matchup against Pacific FC.
The Canadian Championship is not the best place to make sweeping judgements about a team. Atlético Ottawa started the evening in about as poor form since their 6-1 loss to Valour on April 24, but almost like a switch flipped, suddenly the squad that took Pacific to the wall for 90 minutes just four days prior was grinding out what ultimately became a gut-wrenching loss.
A lot of the early part of 2022 for Atlético has been about reflecting and perhaps understanding that to some degree it’s about growth, as much as success.
“If we are a team like the image that we showed in the second half we can fight for important things” Gonzaléz said.
In the future, he’ll probably be right.