'It would mean a lot': Atletico Ottawa star Ollie Bassett hopes to cement 2022 success in silverware
It’s always tough to leave a club – but it's even tougher when you're fresh off being crowned champions with said club.
No sooner did Ollie Bassett lift the 'North Star Shield' with Pacific FC than he decided to take his talents across the country, joining Atlético Ottawa as a free agent.
After playing a key role in Pacific's championship heroics, it was a bit of a shock to see the Northern Irish midfielder trade Purple for the Red-and-White of Ottawa, especially given that Atleti had finished last in the league in 2021.
Yet, while Bassett enjoyed his tenure on Vancouver Island, he felt like he had another gear to hit. On a deep team, one littered with talent in midfield, he wasn't sure if he'd get a chance to find that gear at Pacific.
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So when Ottawa came calling and offered him a chance to be the centre-piece of their new rebuild, Bassett quickly jumped at the opportunity, declining an opportunity to stay with the champions to instead help Ottawa turn their ship around.
"I had a conversation with Pa Modou Kah when he was still with Pacific at the end of last season, and then had another conversation with him and James shortly after the final, and they had an opportunity to keep me for another season," Bassett told OneSoccer this week, ahead of his team's playoff foray against his old side. "So they kind of left the door open for me to stay if I wished.
"For me, it was more about trying to find somewhere where I can play regular games, and really showcase myself in this league and hopefully use that as a platform to have a really good season and maybe move on. So yeah, I think the door was open for me to stay, but I think I just wanted to find somewhere where I knew I was gonna consistently kind of play more, and thankfully, I’ve found that here and I've taken the opportunity with both hands."
While it was a bold decision at the time, it paid off in spades for both Bassett and Ottawa in 2022.
After finishing with just 26 points in 28 games in 2021, Ottawa vaulted to 49 points in 28 games in 2022, doing the unthinkable as they went from worst in the league to first.
Led by a defensive resurgence that saw them concede 18 fewer goals than they did in 2021, they went from being a title afterthought to the team to beat in the CPL this season.
Most wouldn't have seen that coming, but it's a credit to Ottawa's meticulous planning. Through some shrewd signings like Bassett, as well as a revamped coaching staff led by Carlos González, success came quickly to the nation's capital.
González did an excellent job instilling the values of Ottawa’s parent club, Atlético Madrid, complete with some modern twists. It allowed him to get the most out of the group, Bassett included.
"Ever since he (González) came in preseason, it took a while for everyone to understand the way he wants us to play, so we spent a lot of time in Madrid doing a lot of tactical work, as he really drilled us and instilled his ideas and philosophies into us as players," Bassett explained. "And when you have 16, 17 new guys, it takes a while for everyone to get to know each other, and really gel properly.
"But I think when we started to pick up what he wanted us to do on the pitch, we've been really successful, so it’s been good as a collective."
Bassett's performances were noteworthy in particular, going from key piece for Pacific to a standout for Ottawa. As a result, that has seen him go from playing just over 1,300 minutes with Pacific, to racking up a whopping 2,300 minutes with Ottawa this year, playing all but every game for his new side (with that game being their last game as he was rested for the playoffs).
Playing in a box-to-box midfield role crucial to the operation of Ottawa's system, he's become a key focal point for them on both sides of the ball, as reflected by his team’s strong defensive record, as well as his impressive eight goals and two assists from the midfield position.
Repaying the faith that the club had in him to take on such a role, he’s been one of the best players in the league all season, one that will very likely garner strong MVP consideration at end of year.
"On a personal level, I think he's put me in a position where I feel comfortable on both sides of the ball," Bassett said. "I know my role and my responsibilities when we don't have the ball, and then he kind of lets me have a little bit of freedom when we have the ball.
"It's just been nice to be able to play week in and week out and repay the faith that the coaching staff had in me."
His play, coupled with his off-the-field persona, has made him quite the popular figure among the passionate Ottawa fanbase, who has quickly taken to their new no. 10.
Be it the bright red hair that makes him so noticeable on the pitch, or his flashy offensive skills, he's become a cult hero in Ottawa; perhaps this club's first bonafide star.
One fan even commemorated that fact by creating a 'Olliewood' sign on the hill behind the pitch at TD Place.
For Bassett, the love has been mutual.
"That was pretty creative," Bassett admitted. "It's quite nice to be recognized by the people that pay their hard-earned money to come and watch the games week in and week out, so yeah, it was very nice to see, it was a nice touch from whoever decided to come up with that idea, I enjoyed seeing that one as it was quite a creative sign."
But while the regular season was quite fun for Ottawa – especially given that they capped it off by raising a banner as regular season champions – the serious business is now about to start.
Ottawa now makes their first-ever appearance in the CPL playoffs, and they do so with a target on their backs after their strong regular season campaign.
Having been pitted against Pacific in the semi-finals, they'll also have to go through the defending champions over two legs to have any chance of winning, itself a daunting task.
But considering that you often have to beat the best to become the best, that's a challenge that Ottawa will surely embrace.
For Bassett, who now squares off against his old club, there's even more motivation to prove that this season wasn't a fluke.
"It's always nice to see old friends and teammates and people that you shared good moments with last season," he admitted. "So yeah, it’ll be nice to see their faces, but I think ultimately, we're here to do a job, and make sure that we're the team that qualifies to the final over the course of the next 180 minutes. So obviously, it's always nice to play against your old side, but I think for me, my thoughts are purely about winning this tie.
"It would mean a lot to beat Pacific, but a lot to beat anyone, really. We don't have any bad blood, it was just a reality of football, players move on, and go to new experiences and new challenges all the time. I've always wished them the best, and I stay in contact with some of the boys from there, but I'll just treat it like any other game, so they'll just be like any other kind of opponent, one that we want to beat and make sure that we get to that final."
With over 10,000 fans reportedly expected for the second leg of their semi-final tie at TD Place Stadium, and likely more should they make it to the final (which Ottawa would be guaranteed to host as highest seed), the city of Ottawa is more than ready to push their team over their line, too.
Bassett and his teammates will look to try and repay that faith with a championship in the end, capping off a special year for him and his teammates.
"It would mean a lot, not just for the players and the coaching staff, but I think for everyone involved from the front office, the fans to even the city as a whole," Bassett said.
"To have your club created right before COVID, so not being able to fully support it and get behind it? That's tough.
"To go from last in the league last season to winning the championship? It's an incredible turnaround in such a short amount of time, in only seven or eight months.
"To be able to achieve that, that would be something that should be celebrated. You want everyone involved to feel extremely proud of themselves for the work they've put in.
"We just want to keep it one game at a time. We'll just look forward to our game on the weekend, and then, at the end of the two legs, if we're in a position that we hope to be in,we can get excited and look forward to our final."