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Atlético Ottawa Season Preview: Welcome to your González years

By Josh Lemoine on April 6, 2022

It could be argued that, after two years, 2022 will be the expansion season Atlético Ottawa should have had: No COVID-shortened season isolated on Prince Edward Island, no starting the season in another bubble in Winnipeg. This year, “Ottleti” will kick off at home, where it belongs.

In many ways, the club will get a fresh start this season. The squad experienced a massive overhaul in the off-season, with only seven players returning from 2021 (Drew Beckie, Brian Wright, Chris Mannella, Zach Verhoven, Malcolm Shaw, Miguel Acosta and Ben McKendry), and a new coach in Carlos González, replacing the departed Mista. The 2022 edition of Atlético Ottawa will give fans a new and very different look.

Who’s new: Nathan Ingham (GK), Sean Melvin (GK), José Cunha (DF, USports draft pick), Diego Espejo (DF, on loan from Atlético Madrid B), MacDonald Niba (DF), Zachary Roy (DF), Maxim Tissot (DF), Keven Aleman (MF), Zakaria Bahous (MF), Ollie Bassett (MF), Abdoul Sissoko (MF), Carl Haworth (FW), Vladimir Moragrega (FW, on loan from Atlético San Louis), Ballou Tabla (FW)

Who’s gone: Dylon Powley, Teodor Obadal, Milovan Kapor, Brandon John, Nyal Higgins, Myles Cornwall, Matthew Arnone, Keesean Ferdinand, Vashon Neufville, Viti Martinez, Ryan Telfer, Alberto Soto, Antoine Coupland, Tevin Shaw, Rafael Núñez, Mamadou Ba, Jaeden Mercure, Shawn-Claud Lawson, Raúl Uche

CarGo

The changes for 2022 start at the top, with Carlos González (who I’m going to call CarGo from now on until someone tells me to stop) replacing Mista as head coach. After the 2021 season, club CEO Fernando Lopez alluded to lessons learned by parent club Atlético Madrid regarding the Ottawa club and the Canadian Premier League as a whole, which many saw as an admission that the club had not brought in players (and coaches) of an appropriate level to compete in the CPL. Ottawa was Mista’s first time coaching above the youth ranks, and it showed, as fans saw Ottleti consistently out-coached, rarely changing tactics and ineffectively using their subs (if at all).

CarGo, while only 35 years old, comes to Ottawa with a much more complete coaching resume. The Spaniard started his coaching career 10 years ago with Málaga Club de Fútbol before moving to Atlético de Madrid and coaching his way up their youth ranks. In 2020, he was appointed head coach of the Kuwaiti U23 men’s national team and the senior national team. In conversation with TSN1200’s AJ Jakubec, CarGo made it clear his squad will be flexible in its style of play, something Ottawa fans have not seen in the first two years of Ottleti’s existence, and should come as a welcome change.

“We have to control different styles for different moments. We are going to have a competitive team that feels comfortable with the ball; that feels comfortable without the ball; that feels comfortable doing high pressure; that feels comfortable being maybe more compact in our end. We have to try to be a very complete team, so that we are able to win [against] anyone.”

Players to watch

Ballou Tabla: The signing of Tabla was perhaps the most noteworthy of the CPL off-season. An immense talent, Tabla became the first Montreal Impact Academy player sold to a European team, FC Barcelona in 2018. He spent three years playing for Barca’s B team in the Spanish second division, but could never break into the first team. Tabla returned to Montreal, first on loan and then on a permanent deal, but multiple injuries and stories of off-field antics saw his stock plummet.

There was a time when Tabla’s name was spoken in the same breath as Alphonso Davies, the duo seen as the future of Canadian men’s soccer. Now, still just 23, Tabla is already at maybe the most important crossroads in his career. Is this where Tabla uses that incredible talent to rebuild his career, becoming a CPL star and once again the target of European clubs, or does he become just another story of talent gone to waste? We’re hoping that 2022 is the start of Tabla’s redemption story.

Diego Espejo: A small problem with Ottawa having their pre-season mostly in Spain is that die-hard fans have very little opportunity to be amateur scouts. With the club back in Ottawa now, season ticket holders were invited to see Ottleti take on CF Montreal’s U23 team at TD Place on April 3. Watching them live, Espejo, on loan from Atlético Madrid B, stood out. The 19-year-old Spaniard impressed in the pre-season clash. He looked poised with the ball, completed plenty of passes, and never looked outmatched. He’s also tall, with what looks like an impressive vertical leap, so he could be a threat on set pieces as well. Expect Espejo to play a prominent role on defence this season.

Zakaria Bahous: With the departure of Antoine Coupland (now playing with HNK Rijeka in Croatia), Bahous is the club’s new Canadian prodigy. The 20-year-old midfielder from Longueuil, Quebec, was a sought-after prospect in the off-season before Ottawa signed him to a two-year contract (with a third-year option). Bahous was a standout at the college level (earning the CCAA Player of the Year award) and has been turning heads while playing in the PLSQ for FC Laval since he was 15. He has a very high ceiling and, being under contract for up to three years, could be a player Ottawa might try to eventually sell for a lucrative fee. Expect the club to ease him into more minutes as the season progresses and he continues to develop.

 Projected XI

Nathan Ingham, MacDonald Niba, Diego Espejo, Drew Beckie, Miguel Acosta, Abdoul Sissoko, Ollie Bassett, Zach Verhoven, Ballou Tabla, Malcolm Shaw, Carl Haworth

Taking CarGo at his word, there likely won’t be a consistent lineup from week to week, but these are the 11 players I could see playing the most minutes by the end of the season. Most believe Nathan Ingham is the presumptive starter in goal, but Sean Melvin has the quality to start as well. They’ll push each other in training. Drew Beckie is the de facto captain of this squad and a steadying influence on defence, while Miguel Acosta improved every single game in 2021 and has earned his spot on this list. Diego Espejo is young, but has the pedigree to be a starter in the CPL, while MacDonald Niba is expected to establish himself as one of the top defenders in the league.

The midfield was a major weakness in 2021, but Ottawa has upgraded significantly in that area. Standout Zach Verhoven is back and should continue to be an exciting presence on the right side. Abdoul Sissoko has one of the more established resumes of any player in the league and should provide a lot of guidance to some of the younger players. Ollie Bassett was one of Ottawa’s first recruits in the off-season and will play a huge role in starting their attack.

Ottleti is not short on attacking options in 2022, and I found it hard to leave players like Vlad Moragrega and Brian Wright off this XI. However, if I’m choosing one primary striker, Malcolm Shaw deserves it as one of Ottawa’s brightest lights from 2021. He earned his spot on that perch, and I expect to see players like Ballou Tabla and Carl Haworth flanking him regularly to create havoc for opposing defenders.

Expectations

A club with the resources of Atlético Ottawa needs to take a step forward this season, and initial signs are that they will. With an upgraded roster and a credible new coach, Ottawa should be disappointed if they miss the playoffs. But with so many new additions, and other teams returning with more established cores, I don’t see this as a championship season, but rather a foundational one, building to what I think could be a dominant 2023.

Apt613 Predictions

CPL standings:

1 – Valour FC
2 – Forge FC
3 – Cavalry FC
4 – Atlético Ottawa
5 – HFX Wanderers FC
6 – York United
7 – Pacific FC
8 – FC Edmonton

Regular season explanation:

Playoffs: Atlético Ottawa losing in the semi-finals to eventual champions Valour FC.

Top scorer: Malcolm Shaw (11 goals)

Most minutes: Nathan Ingham

Who will score the goal of the year: Zach Verhoven

MVP: Carl Haworth

Goals for: 47

Goals against: 38

Clean sheets: 5

Most heated rivalry: York United


Atlético Ottawa kicks off their season this Saturday, April 9, when they take on Cavalry FC at TD Place at 3pm. Tickets for Saturday’s match are pay-what-you-can, with proceeds going to support humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. Every game will be available to stream on paid streaming service OneSoccer. TSN1200 will also carry every game on the AM dial.