AGR's High-Press: Okay, so... what's going on with Atlético Ottawa?
For the first time this season, a CPL game saw a team… have an offensive outburst?
After the first 12 games of the season saw just three teams score twice in a game, with none of them scoring more than that, Pacific became the first team to do that in week four, picking up a commanding 4-1 victory on the road against Ottawa (naturally, to balance things out, week 4 also featured the first 0-0 of the season).
Thanks to that, and a key Forge victory in the first 905 darby of the season, it finally led to some separation in the standings, with Pacific and Forge now sitting atop it as the only teams to win two games.
Things remain wide open after them, thanks to an ongoing flurry of draws and the fact that just one home team has won in 16 games this season, but that’s a sign of how competitive things have been.
As a result, it made for an interesting weekend of action. Considering it featured Pacific’s goal explosion, a derby and a first-ever home match for Vancouver FC, there was a lot going on across the board.
Therefore, here’s a look back at all of it, and what I took away from these matches tactically, in this week’s edition of “High Press”.
Pacific finally finds goals… but what’s UP with Ottawa?
The last time Pacific were in Ottawa, they were left to lament missed opportunities, as they were eliminated in the 2022 CPL semi-finals 3-1 on aggregate.
In a game where nothing was falling from them, they did everything but score the goals they needed to overcome a 2-0 deficit from the first leg of that tie, as Ottawa grit their teeth and held on right to the bitter end in order to make the finals.
This time around, Ottawa wouldn’t be so lucky, however. Frustrated by the fact that they had just four points and two goals to show for three relatively bright performances at home to begin the 2023 campaign, Pacific knew that they needed a statement game as they headed out on the road for the first time.
And they certainly got it, as they picked up a 4-1 win in this game, storming out to a 3-0 lead inside 40 minutes before cruising to the most dominant victory that we’ve seen in the CPL this season.
After spending the last two games pondering what more they could’ve done to score goals, as they drew Cavalry 1-1 and lost to Forge 1-0 despite bright performances, no such regrets exist for them this week.
Plus, they did that thanks to a new source, too, one who is probably going to keep getting more starts if he keeps up this level of play - Aymen Sellouf.
Following three positive performances in the other matches, he hit another level in this game, as he was dominant for Pacific. Always eager to take on defenders, he’s proven to be pretty adept at getting past them, too, showing an impressive range of tricks and feints to do so.
Just look at the early goal of the year candidate he scored to make it 3-0, as he turned one of the league’s best defences from last season into a bunch of practice cones, certainly no easy feat.
Along with the assist he had in the second half, which was an inch away from being ruled as an Olimpico (if not for Amer Đidić ensuring it was safely over the line), it was just overall a bright game from the Pacific attacker, as seen below.
You combine that with the fact that the rest of the front four of Djenairo Daniels (one assist), Josh Heard (one goal) and Manny Aparicio (one assist) all got in on the action, as well as Sean Young from midfield (one goal), it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for Pacific. Especially considering that they were able to bring on Easton Ongaro and Adonijah Reid from the bench, and are yet to get Kekuta Manneh fully up to speed, they should have a lot more goals in their future.
“The most important thing for us was to be a little bit looser,” Pacific head coach James Merriman noted afterwards. “And to play a little bit freer and take chances and dribble, take 1v1s, go to goal, combine, and have a bit more joy in the way that we attack because we have been strong in the buildup but then too tight in front of goal. Go and enjoy it, especially with the players that we have and we saw that. I’m really happy for the team.”
“That was our breakout game this season,” Young added.
Really, the only worry they have at the moment is in goal, as Emil Gazdov let in another goal he’d probably want back, the third such game in a row that’s happened. It didn’t hurt them in the end, but that’s a bit of a worry for the 19-year-old, who has shown good growth during his first run as a starter, but has been nervous on a few occasions.
Pacific put a lot of faith in him, and understandably so given the ceiling he’s also shown glimpses of, but given the importance of some of the games they’re about to play, it’ll be interesting to see if Gazdov is able to hold onto his place, or if Kieran Baskett might slot in soon.
But that’s enough about Pacific. Let’s get into the question that everyone is asking right now - what’s going on with Ottawa?
The regular season champions from a season ago, they now sit bottom of the league with just two points in four games. Not only that, but they just haven’t looked like Atlético Ottawa, either.
Last year, they were frustrating to play against. When you played Ottawa, you expected them to be organized, chippy and relentless defensively, and they had a clear idea of how to attack in transition.
So far this season, they’ve been anything but. Part of that is a regression to the mean statistically, but even beyond that, they’re not doing enough to overcome that.
To begin, the biggest issue is how they’ve struggled defensively. Their numbers actually haven’t been that bad, but they’ve been super disorganized on several occasions, with this Pacific game being a prime example of that. Here's the first goal:
And here's the second:
A big reason for that, however, is that they’re giving away a lot of cheap chances to their opponents. Take last week’s loss to York, which came via a Mo Babouli wonder goal from a free kick.
You’d see that and be like - okay, not bad, right? Well, they gave away the free kick after a sloppy turnover and subsequent foul, and from there, that allowed Babouli to wield his quality.
Yet, it’s not the only time they’ve tripped over their own feet defensively. In this Pacific game, two of the four goals came directly from Ottawa turnovers, with the other two being woeful set-piece defending and the sort of defence one wouldn’t expect to see from this team.
Then, if you look at the two goals they conceded in the first two weeks, there were similar themes there, too, as one came off another turnover, while another came from a wide ball, which is typically an area of strength for Ottawa.
“I’m very disappointed with the first half we had, and the mistakes we made, the stupid mistakes that we made,” head coach Carlos González said. “We can’t afford to start a game by going down 2-0, and we made it so easy for them, and after that, we were chasing the game for 90 minutes, and it’s tough to win a game where you give gifts, stupid gifts.”
That’s key, as Ottawa’s also struggled offensively to begin the year. Something they also dealt with last season, that didn’t end up being as big of an issue, as they often only needed one goal to get a result out of a game.
But with their defence struggling, that’s put pressure on their offence to step up, and so far, they haven’t been able to do that.
Of course, one can wonder if Ottawa’s offensive struggles are leading to the defensive ones, as the defence is feeling the pressure of needing to be perfect in order to get points, but it does feel like as a team that is known for its defensive identity, it’s a bigger story to see that side of their game regress a bit.
Certainly, the offence is not blameless. They need to push Ollie Bassett higher up the field, find a role for Sam Salter, get more touches in the box for Malcolm Shaw and should probably get Zakaria Bahous more starts.
Not all is bad, as Gianni Dos Santos has been a sneaky force out wide, and Jean Aniel Assi has been extremely dangerous in glimpses (and should probably have a few goals already), so within that, solutions are there for Ottawa.
But that’s been clear since day one.
With the defensive issues, however, those have become more glaring, and will need to be fixed soon, as while the offence could be the difference between them finishing first and third, it feels like their defence will be the difference between them making the playoffs or missing out completely.
Therefore, look for adjustments from them there. Tactically, perhaps moving Ollie Bassett up the pitch and finding a more defensive option to pair with Noah Verhoeven could help, as will the return of Maxim Tissot and Carl Haworth, but even beyond those tweaks, they’ll need individuals to step up, especially in that back four.
In particular, someone like Diego Espejo will want to hit the reset button after his Pacific performance, as Ottawa will need him to return to his 2022 service. It feels like if he can do that, the likes of Karl Ouimette and Luke Singh will follow, helping Ottawa massively.
If not, it feels like they could be spending a lot more time in the basement than expected, with teams more than eager to hunt the defending regular season champions down when called upon.
“It’s been the same old story,” a frustrated Bassett said after the game. “It’s 4, 5 games now where we’ve conceded first, we concede again early, and give ourselves a mountain to climb.”
“We’ve started games too slowly, we’ve started games too flat, we don’t move the ball quick enough, we come on the pitch and just think that we’ll roll teams over because of last year, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a different group here, different players, we haven’t got the same squad as last year, so it’s up to us to put it right, and we’ll need everyone pulling in the same direction because it’s an unacceptable start for any team, let alone a team that finished first in 2022, to sit with two points in four games is unacceptable.”
Pacius and Campbell’s budding partnership helps Forge nab derby win
Question - what does one do when they’ve got three starting-calibre strikers, and play in a formation with only one natural striker?
Do you start one at a time? Do you play all three across the front line? Or do you shift one of them out wide?
That’s been the question that Forge has been experimenting with this season. In their opening CPL game, they went with one striker, Jordan Hamilton. Then, in the Canadian Championship, they went for two, Woobens Pacius and Terran Campbell, with Campbell playing out wide like he used to do for Pacific FC.
Across the next two games, that rotation played out once again, as Hamilton got the nod alone up front for CPL match #2, before Campbell and Pacius got the call again for match #3.
Then, for the first time all season, Bobby Smyrniotis decided to stick with something this past weekend, as he kept Campbell and Pacius together for CPL match #4, a (very short) away trip to York United for the first 905 derby of 2023.
Interestingly, however, there was a bit of a tweak within that - instead of letting Campbell play on the wing, as he is comfortable doing, Smyrniotis shifted Pacius out wide, in a bit of a different look for the young striker.
Given that Pacius has pretty much exclusively played at the #9 across his two-and-a-half seasons for Forge, it was a big move, seeing that Pacius had scored an impressive 23 goals in 66 games (all competitions) across that span.
Yet, by challenging Pacius to find some different spaces in the attack, it forced him out of his comfort zone as a pure #9.
To his credit, however, the 21-year-old responded perfectly to that. In fact, his new role seemed to suit him a bit more, too, as he got a bit more involved on the ball than usual in the build-up, while still occupying some of the same spaces off the ball in the attack.
With Forge playing a 3-3-4 on the ball, Pacius would actually drift into more of a left forward position off the shoulder of Campbell up front, with full-back Malik Owalabi-Belewu drifting forward on the left to fill that left side of that front four, with winger Tristan Borges shifting over to the right.
As for Campbell, he looked quite comfortable in a return to the middle. As mentioned, he’s comfortable on the wing, but is at his best there when he’s able to drift around and find spaces between coverage.
With Forge’s wide players, however, they want them to be involved in the build-up, while their #9s look to drift into space and make runs. Because of that, the Pacius and Campbell swap made sense, as Pacius has improved his link-up play massively over the last year, allowing him to fit into that wide role, while Campbell was able to make the runs and find the spaces he likes to play in.
Therefore, it was almost fitting that the pair linked up for the only goal of the game, which came when Pacius teed up Campbell in space for a perfect strike.
GOAL🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 6, 2023
It's the all-time #CanPL leading scorer, Terran Campbell, who slots home a cutback from Woobens Pacius to give @ForgeFCHamilton a 1-0 lead in this 905 Derby vs York United pic.twitter.com/PNTXU94i3s
And that wasn’t the only time they benefited from their new roles, either, as they found a lot of good pockets in the build-up on several occasions.
Through that, Forge were able to pick up a second straight road win, helping make up for the two draws they opened up the season with at home. Adding the fact that it was a derby, against a team that always plays them tough, and that’s huge, even if things got a bit chippy at the end, leading to a sending-off to Ashtone Morgan that will probably be rescinded.
Despite rotating their squad in each game, and tweaking their tactics for each opponent, they’ve managed to find eight points in four games, which is not a bad return at all for the three-time champions.
“We know we’re going to win a lot of games with attacking football, but we also know we’re going to win championships by defending,” Forge’s head coach, Bobby Smyrniotis, aptly noted post-match.
Speaking of York, however, it was a mixed bag for them, despite the frustrations of dropping a match at home to their rivals.
They were pretty solid at both ends, as reflected by the fact that they outshot Forge 14-13, winning the xG battle 1.35-0.78, yet really got undone by that one moment defensively, which was one of many nervous moments they had there.
Yet, that’s just a result of their injury crisis. Given that they had to play full back Paris Gee at centre back this game alongside Roger Thompson, who was only able to go 60 minutes in his first game back from an injury, defensive struggles were always a likely possibility.
But the good news is that there’s finally some relief on the horizon at that centre back position. Thompson’s return was a good sign, as well as the fact that Tass Mourdoukoutas finally made an appearance off the bench.
Plus, despite some injuries in midfield, they’ve looked a lot better in that area for two weeks in a row, so it’s encouraging to imagine what they could look like when they can deploy two of Elijah Adekube, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé and Matthew Baldisimo together in a midfield double pivot.
Then, in the attack, they’ll just need to find a way to restore Osaze De Rosario’s confidence. After a strong 2022 season, he’s struggled this year, not looking like himself in front of goal.
Someone who is usually ruthless in the box, he’s looked hesitant on several opportunities this year, as despite leading the league with 10 shots, he’s yet to score a goal.
If York can get him going, however, that’d be huge. Brian Wright has been a lively force up top despite not scoring, while Mo Babouli, is well, Mo Babouli (and was missed this game as he exited warm-up with a knock, something York will desperately hope is not serious)
Without De Rosario in top form, however, it just feels like they’re missing something in the attack, and has really held them back from potentially grabbing a result or two more than they have so far.
TACTICAL BREAKDOWN ✖️⭕️— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 3, 2023
In 2022, Osaze De Rosario had 13 goals in all comps for York. So far in 2023, he's got 0 in 4 games and has been pushed to the bench by Brian Wright
Here's @jwilsonxviii and @KristianJack with what De Rosario needs to do to find that 2022 form again pic.twitter.com/MDnGjPRjNZ
Vancouver FC shows resilience despite early red card in home opener
In the final match of the week, Vancouver hosted Cavalry in what promised to be a special game.
Their first-ever home match - in front of a sold-out crowd at Willoughby Community Park, no less - it was a special one for many reasons off the pitch.
On it, however, they still had to take care of business, as the last thing they wanted to do was to send their new fans home disappointed. Especially against a Cavalry side that loves to spoil parties, it wasn’t going to be an easy game.
Therefore, when Vancouver went down to 10 players inside 30 minutes on a surprising red card, it felt like it was game over at that stage. Given that Cavalry would have 60 minutes up a player, it was hard to imagine Vancouver hanging on, no matter how hard they tried.
Then, when Cavalry did score the first goal, it seemed to deflate the stadium, as they seemed resigned to the guests winning the match.
Yet, Vancouver didn’t get that message. Instead, they went after things, and they were rewarded for it with a goal soon after, and then managed to keep pushing from there.
Things got a bit nervy at the end, as Callum Irving certainly saved a point for his team with two big late stops, but they got it over the line in the end.
Plus, how they did so is the most impressive part. Despite the red card, they never changed their shape to play more defensively, or tried to bring on defensive players to try and clog things up.
Instead, they went after it all game long, even bringing on several attacking substitutions in the second half, including the youngest player in CPL history, 16-year-old Taryck Tahid, as they chased a win. Despite the grandeur of the occasion, they went after it, and nearly got rewarded for it in the end.
But that’s just a credit to their mentality. No matter the environment, the situation or the opponent, they’ve got a steadfast commitment to their gameplan, and won’t abandon that at any cost.
Plus, no matter the adversity they face in that quest, they seem to be unbothered by anything.
Just take the game that defender Ibrahim Bakare had, as an example. From crunching tackles to big dribbles, along with some passionate celebrations mixed in there, he's quickly becoming a fan favourite with how he's emblemized this team's fighting spirit.
That’s a huge attribute for Vancouver to have, one that’s paid off for them so far, and should continue to pay off for them going forward. Considering that they’ve bounced back from an opening-day loss to grab a first-ever club win on the road in week 2, a come-from-behind draw on the road in week 3, and now a come-from-behind draw down a player in their home opener in week 4, those are valuable points that are adding up for a young team.
Now, they’ve still got work to do tactically, as they’re growing that side of their game, especially in possession, but the spirit is worth commending, as it’s not easy for a team this new and young to find that, and they seem to have it in bundles.
Meanwhile, for the guests, they head home eager to return to the drawing board, as they sit with a mixed record of four draws in four games.
Considering three of those games have been on the road, they won’t be mad that they’ve got four points, but seeing that they’ve had five different one-goal leads across those games, they probably should’ve turned at least one of those into a win.
In fact, of the matches that they played, this was probably one of their best opportunities to do so, as they had the advantage of the extra player when they got their lead.
Instead, they just lacked the killer instinct in key moments. Not only that, they didn’t really generate enough opportunities considering the situation, either, as they finished with just 0.96 xG and three shots on target despite sending 18 attempts on goal.
It just felt like in the box, Vancouver wanted it more than them, and that showed with some of the defensive plays that they had.
Therefore, for Cavalry, the biggest thing to adjust will be how they respond to scoring that first goal. For whatever reason, when that’s happened, they loosen the screws at both ends of the pitch, instead of tightening them.
Overall, they’ve been playing well, as the eye test and numbers suggest, but just need to keep that killer instinct when up a goal, not allowing opponents to hang around as they have.
In good news, however, Ali Musse and Mikaël Cantave continue to be dangerous, even if they drifted out of the game at times, so that’s a partnership they’ll look to keep growing going forward.
Valour and Halifax grind out gritty 0-0 draw
Lastly, in a game that felt like a boxing match, both metaphorically and literally, Valour and Halifax duked out the first 0-0 of the CPL season on Saturday.
The first time either side was held scoreless all season, credit has to be given to both teams' defenders, as they put in quite the shift to keep things level.
For Valour, that meant a big performance in midfield, as they did their best to disrupt a Halifax side that likes to set the tempo in games. As a result, this felt like the first game Halifax were unable to do that, as Valour did a great job of not letting their opponents get settled, led by a big performance from Dante Campbell at the #6, as he was excellent defensively.
All of a sudden, that meant another clean sheet for the league’s defensive team, who have amassed their record despite heavy injuries at the back and midfield. Yet, that’s a credit to how organized Phil Dos Santos has this team right now.
Given that they’ve achieved all this without Andrew Jean-Baptiste even seeing the field yet, that’s pretty impressive, as Valour have often looked lost without their skipper in past seasons, but this shows the commitment this team has shown to the defensive side of their game so far this year.
It wasn’t all perfect for Valour, as they struggled in the final third, especially with that final action, but their front three of Pacifique Niyongabire, Kian Williams and Anthony Novak are continuing to show good growth. In particular, Novak has continued to be a revelation, showing no ill effects from his knee injury last year, and has arguably been the brightest spot up front with how he’s made everyone around him better, despite how exciting Niyongabire and Williams continue to be in 1v1 situations.
As for Halifax, they’ll be pleased with how they played, despite the result. Even if they weren’t able to find their rhythm, they did well to roll up their sleeves and adjust, and still won the possession, shots and xG battle in the end.
On the road against a team that is typically very dominant at home, you take that and the point, especially seeing how they grew into the game after a strong Valour start to the match.
At a certain point, they’ll need to grab a win, but four points in four games isn’t terrible, given that they played three of those on the road against tough teams.
Plus, if Aidan Daniels keeps playing like this, Halifax is going to start scoring more goals, as while they’re getting to good areas of the pitch, three goals in four games feels a bit behind where they could be. If they can get Daniels, Massimo Ferrin, Wesley TImoteo and one of their striker options all firing on the field at the same time, however… watch out.
Especially if they keep putting in these defensive shifts, having conceded just three goals in four games, everything will click at the other end, at least if what they’ve shown in glimpses offensively is to mean anything.
Player of the Matchday: Aymen Sellouf
Always eager to use his flair and take players on, Sellouf has looked like a player to watch since day one. As a result, it’s not surprising to see that he was able to completely take over a game as he did for Pacific against Ottawa, finishing with one goal, one assist and a full highlight reel.
Pacific’s got a fun one in him, let's just say that.
Goal of the Week: Aymen Sellouf
Speaking of Sellouf’s highlight reel, his goal against Ottawa was about as good as they come, as he danced through their defence before finishing with a deft shot.
The skill, the confidence, the celebration - it’s all on point from the Dutch winger.
You gotta see this: Vancouver FC’s tifo
Since day one, Vancouver have called themselves the “dark side”, a nod to their darker colour scheme.
Therefore, with their home opener just days after May the Fourth, it was perfect that their supporters, the Fraser Valley Fanatics, were able to whip up this “welcome to the dark side” tifo in honour of both Star Wars and their club's slogan.
You add in the fact that they’ve got Afshin Ghotbi depicted as Emperor Palpatine (his nickname at a past stop was "the emperor"), and it’s overall just a perfect tifo for the club’s first-ever home match.
Also, in an honourable mention, you can't leave out this interview with Ibrahim Bakare from after the Vancouver match. Just look at the passion.
REACTION 🎙️— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 8, 2023
A star is born in Langley, BC ✨
Hear the passion from @VanFootballClub's Ibrahim Bakare as his team claws back while down to 10 men to earn a point in their FIRST EVER home match 😎#CanPL | #WeAreVancouverFC pic.twitter.com/9TdR1OpVwe
Don't you also just want to run through a brick wall right now?
What I’m watching this week: Cavalry vs Halifax
It was very hard to pick between this match and the clash between Forge and Valour, but given that Cavalry and Halifax are both yet to win (and are also yet to lose), this match ended up getting the nod.
It’s a risky pick, as both teams have combined for eight draws this year, meaning that it’d be reasonable to expect a tie, but it feels like this could be a game for one of these teams to find their legs.
Given that both sides have had a habit of scoring first in games, and have relatively played well despite what the results might suggest, they’ve both been due a win.
Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that a win would come for one of the teams in this game.
Plus, this should be a solid tactical battle, too. Cavalry’s been very solid defensively, but just needs to get more going in the final third, while Halifax has been fun to watch on the ball, but haven’t been able to sustain their high-energy style over a full game.
And if one of them gets a lead in this game… watch out, as they’ve blown a total of eight one-goal leads between them. At the very least, if they can score some goals, that would suggest that this could be a pretty fun back-and-forth affair.