Atlético Ottawa SEASON PREVIEW: Is another massive season in store over in the nation's capital?
After a season where they defied all expectations, the pressure’s on over in Ottawa.
Following two seasons to forget as an expansion side in 2020 and 2021, Ottawa took a huge step forward in 2022, becoming regular season champions, before falling just short in the CPL finals to Forge.
Fuelled by the arrival of new head coach, Carlos González, as well as some key signings, such as Ollie Bassett and Ballou Tabla, Ottawa was a formidable outfit, too, playing an efficient defensive style while also entertaining in the attack.
Because of that, the expectations on them to take another step forward in 2023. Having now proven that they can sit among the elite for a season, the pressure is on them to now maintain their status at the top.
Of course, they won’t need to take a step like they did last year, when they went from last place to first, scoring six more goals and conceding 18 fewer goals than they did the year prior, but there are still some clear areas for improvement in 2023.
And with a squad filled with key returnees, having retained most of the spine of their team, as well as some explosive new additions at both ends of the pitch, there is no reason why they can’t do that.
Therefore, the 2022 CPL Coach of the Year, González, will have his work cut out from him, as he embarks on the hardest task for a team that has an improvement like that - maintaining and building on that sort of form.
Projected Starting XI:
3 key questions:
1) Can “Olliewood” keep being the star of the show with a new supporting cast?
While González’s efforts as head coach certainly played a big role in Ottawa’s breakout, however, the efforts of one player, in particular, really stole the show - those of Ollie Bassett.
Fittingly given the nickname of “Olliewood” given his knack for shining in the big moments, he was a force for Ottawa last year, after they acquired the 2021 CPL champion in a surprise coup from Pacific, who had surprisingly let him go.
Arriving from day one eager to prove that he could be more than the depth player he was on that championship team, he had a big chip on his shoulder, and it showed.
As a result, he ended up having a season to remember in Ottawa. Not only did he score a team-leading eight goals and chip in with three assists from midfield, but he was also a huge part of the team’s attack in other ways, acting as a key orchestrator.
Basically, there wasn’t much that happened in the attacking final third for Ottawa that didn’t have Bassett’s stamp all over it, from the piercing through balls that he’d play, the aggressive runs he’d make, or the powerful shots that he’d unleash.
Because of that, he was undoubtedly one of the best players in the league last year, and ended up picking up the hardware to show it, nabbing the CPL’s Player of the Year award, as well as the first-ever CPL Player’s Player of the Year.
He unfortunately saw his season end on a bit of a sour note, as he had a quiet finals performance against Forge, but overall, that was not enough to damper what was a fantastic campaign for the midfielder.
Therefore, the goal for him will be to maintain that, as Ottawa will rely upon him heavily once again, especially after some of the changes that they saw in their attack.
Gone are the mercurial Ballou Tabla (transferred to Turkish 2nd division side Manisa) and Brian Wright (moved to York United), who scored seven goals apiece, with Tabla chipping in four assists and Wright two helpers.
Then, replacing them are Samuel Salter, Jean-Aniel Assi and Gianni Dos Santos. The 22-year-old Salter is the big add, as he became the first-ever intraleague transfer from the Halifax Wanderers after scoring 11 goals in 2022, while the 18-year-old Assi is an intriguing prospect, as he arrives on loan from CF Montreál after a decent loan stint with Cavalry last year.
That then leaves Dos Santos as a very intriguing addition, as he was also a 2021 champion with Pacific alongside Bassett, and had four goals and four assists in all competitions despite being rotated in and out of Pacific’s squad last year, making this a potential Bassett-like signing in its upside.
Along with the returning Malcolm Shaw, who scored only four goals last year after scoring 10 the year prior, there are certainly several good pieces for Bassett to work with, as he looks to prove that his 2022 campaign was no fluke.
2) Can Ottawa handle being the hunted instead of the hunters?
As mentioned earlier, often the biggest challenge for a team that bursts onto the scene isn’t necessarily what happens in that first year of success, where everything seems to go right for them, but instead what happens the following season.
There, they’ve got the pressure of being expected to win, and to avoid being labelled as a fluke, with many just expecting them to regress to their old ways.
And having made a jump as big as they did, Ottawa will certainly be feeling that pressure in 2023, as after thriving as the hunters last year, there’s no doubt that they’ll be the hunted this season.
That’s worth noting, as their style of play really suited their underdog label, as they often ground out results defensively, allowing them to surprise teams. Because of that, it’s no coincidence that their 2022 success was actually fuelled by their road form, as they picked up an absurd 28 points in 14 games, beating each team in the league on the road at least once each.
Now, however, the secret’s out, so teams will be eager to sit back when they play Ottawa, daring them to play their style, instead of leaning into what made Ottawa successful.
Of course, it’s worth noting that will suit Ottawa in certain aspects, as their possession play was quite good, despite having the reputation of being a counter-attacking team, but it’ll certainly be something different to deal with.
Plus, as their underlying numbers showed, they could be prime for a bit of a regression, so it’s important that they find a way to evolve their game instead of banking on what worked last year, as while they captured lightning in a bottle in 2022, that sort of formula rarely works for teams twice.
Having firmly finished fifth in xG for and xG against, despite sitting third and second in actual goals for and goals against, respectively, that shows that they still have work to do at both ends in order to build off of what they did last year.
Especially now that they’re going to get the best version of teams every night, taking away the element of surprise that they provided in 2023, that’ll be a new challenge for González to navigate, as he tries to get the most out of this group once again this season.
3) Will U21 minutes be an obstacle?
Taking a page out of Cavalry and Forge’s book, Ottawa’s success last year was also quite dependent on one key factor - experience.
They weren’t an old team, per se, but compared to teams such as Pacific, York and Halifax, who leaned into the “Play The Kids” campaign, they felt a bit older, leaning on a core of players who were mostly between the ages of 25 to 30.
Not only that, but they weren’t really dependent on players who were 21 or younger, which would’ve been fine in most circuits, but not the CPL, where teams must give at least 2000 minutes total across a minimum of three Canadian U21 players in a season.
A mark that most teams cleared easily and early, Ottawa was left fighting to clear that threshold until the last weeks of the season, a mark that they barely cleared by reaching 2114 minutes.
Plus, 1432 of those minutes were carried out by Zakaria Bahous, who quickly became a trusted member of the team as the year wore on. That’s worth noting, as he’s aged out as a U21 player now, meaning that Ottawa won’t be able to rely upon him in that same way this season as a returnee.
Because of that, it’ll be interesting to see if they have any issues again in 2023. Newcomers Aniel-Assi and Gabriel Antinoro are eligible for those minutes, as are returnee Zachary Roy and his 406 minutes from last year, so there’s a solid group there.
But with Roy being a defender, minutes will be tough to come by there for him given Ottawa’s depth, entrusting a lot of that responsibility on the newcomers, Aniel-Assi and Antinoro.
That’s worth noting, as only 1000 of Assi’s minutes will count given that he’s on loan, which could put a lot of pressure on Antinoro, an 18-year-old midfielder who comes from the CF Montréal system, but has zero professional minutes to his name so far.
Therefore, there’s no doubt that there will be a lot of pressure on Ottawa and their kids, which should be interesting to watch, as they look to clear that threshold and avoid the fine and the punishment of missing the playoffs that comes with it.
Player to Watch: Sam Salter
Knowing that they needed more goals this season, Ottawa made one of the biggest moves in league history, bringing in Sam Salter for an undisclosed transfer fee, making him the first player to move between CPL clubs in a transfer.
Yet, that shows how coveted his services were to Ottawa, as Salter was among the best in the league last year at putting the ball in the net with his 11 goals, good for fourth in the Golden Boot race. Given that came on a Halifax team that scored just 24 goals, meaning that Salter’s goals represented 45% of their final output, that’s very impressive, hence why Ottawa made this move.
And at just 22, Salter is still very young, meaning that this move should not just help Ottawa in the here and now, but make him an asset for the future, too.
Therefore, this is a move that makes a lot of sense on a lot of fronts. There are some questions to be asked on if Salter will be able to fully match his 2022 production, yes, as he did also score six of his goals from the penalty spot, but given the situation that he was in offensively, his production is still impressive, and should help him hit the ground running with his new club.
Sometimes, when you’ve got a good thing, you don’t want to mess with it too much, and that’s very much what Ottawa has gone for with their latest kits.
Therefore, while their home kit is nothing extravagant, the iconic Atlético red and white stripes do the job, although you’d wish that they found a way to draw the patterns of the shirt out more, as they’re interesting upon a closer glance.
Then, as for their secondary kit, it’s a bit boring, as while it’s a nice pattern, it is quite similar to ones that have been done before, although the light blue colours do come out nicely, which is a nice touch.
Ottawa will do well if… they can get more MVP production out of Ollie Bassett. When a player is as dominant as he was, it elevates the play of those around them, something that very much was the case with Ottawa last year. There’s no doubt that they should be a solid team no matter what, and certainly a well-coached one, so if Bassett can thrive within that again, there’s no reason why this team can’t have a repeat of last season, if not better.
Ottawa will struggle if… they get complacent. Especially given that their advanced numbers are a bit of a red flag, and that a lot of their players had career years, it feels like Ottawa is primed for a step back if they try for an exact repeat of their 2022 season. Because of that, it’s going to be intriguing to see how they try to push themselves forward this year, while also trying new things to evolve as a team, helping them avoid falling into a trap that could lead to a bit of a regression to the mean statistically.