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Season Preview: Predictions for Ottawa Fury FC before the USL Championship opener on Saturday—03.09.19

By Josh Lemoine on March 7, 2019

2018 season record: 13W, 6D, 15L (45 points)
2018 league position: 10th in the USL Eastern Conference
2018 playoffs: DNQ
2018 Canadian Championship: semifinals
2018 average home attendance: 4,618
Coach: Nikola Popovic
GM: Julian de Guzman

Ottawa Fury FC kicks off their 2019 United Soccer League season this Saturday evening (March 9) on the road in Charleston, South Carolina. They’ll then travel to Birmingham, Alabama to play USL Championship newbies Legion FC the following week, before taking three weeks off (!) to prepare for their home opener on April 6 against Nashville SC at Lansdowne Park.

Before the boys take to the pitch, there’s a lot for fans to get caught up on.

A. Lot.

So what might you have missed? Let’s dive into it.

Last season

In 2018, Ottawa was in the thick of the USL playoff chase until ending the campaign with a whimper. Needing wins in its final two games to make the playoffs, Fury FC could only muster a single point and finished 10th in the Eastern Conference; 4 points out of the final playoff spot. Ottawa only scored 31 times in 34 season games, and without question it was that absence of scoring which was the team’s undoing. After the final game on October 13th, a shutout loss to Charleston Battery, Fury FC could only look ahead to 2019.

…Or could they?

Photo courtesy of Ottawa Fury FC

10 days that shook the soccer world

News broke on December 12th of a, let’s call it a disagreement, between the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) and Ottawa Fury FC. The issue? CONCACAF wanted Ottawa playing in the new Canadian Premier League (CanPL) and threatened to force Fury FC into switching leagues for 2019.

Fury FC ownership, the Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group (OSEG), was adamant that the American USL is where they want Fury FC to play this year, arguing the quality of play is likely higher than what the CanPL will offer in its inaugural season, which kicks off this spring. After a tense 10-day standoff, with Fury fans wondering if there would be pro soccer at all at TD Place—this year, or ever again—CONCACAF relented and on December 21st sanctioned Ottawa to play in the USL for at least one more year.

The decision

Fury FC would rather the storylines for this season be focused on the field, but it’s inevitable that the biggest question, for much of this season, will be whether or not Ottawa made the right decision. CanPL vs. USL.

OSEG chose to keep Fury FC in the USL Championship, an American-based league where Ottawa is the only Canadian team; instead of joining the Canadian Premier League, a brand new outfit kicking off in 2019 with seven clubs across the country. OSEG has made it clear they support the CanPL, and OSEG President and CEO Mark Goudie is on the record saying they do actually want Fury FC in the CanPL… one day.

New signing Christiano François in pre-season action vs. Philadelphia Union of the MLS. Photo: Mary Holt.

Messaging has been consistent since Fury FC’s 2014 inaugural season that whichever league Ottawa plays in is based on a balance of (a) bringing the highest level of play possible to Ottawa into (b) the most financially stable environment possible. OSEG ditched the NASL in favour of the USL in late 2016, sacrificing somewhat the level of play for a more stable environment. With the NASL now effectively dead, but Fury FC still alive and well, it’s safe to say that was the right decision.

While the NASL had long shown signs of volatility, there is an air of permanency about the USL. The product is a competitive, comfortable and known quantity, and by all accounts the USL is a well run organization.

But what about the CanPL? In many ways, the league is an unknown product, and its long-term viability is not assured to OSEG executives. Teams will begin play on April 27th (a reasonable date considering Canadian climate), but until then, we won’t have a real idea what kind of quality the new league offers. Well-placed sources have salaries being on average lower compared to what Ottawa and most USL teams offer, so it would stand to reason that the quality of play won’t be at USL levels in year one.

But is that what fans care about?

A good way to judge the financial state of any soccer team is to look at ticket sales. Fury FC will be looking to improve attendance numbers this year, after averaging just over 4,600 fans per game last season, an 18% drop compared to 2017.

Ottawa hasn’t made the playoffs in any league since their run to the 2015 NASL Soccer Bowl. A strong start to the season and a winning atmosphere would surely resurrect some buzz in the city for this team, but a criticism of the USL has always been that there are few teams fans are excited to see visit town. Would you rather buy tickets to see Ottawa play Bethlehem Steel FC or Halifax Wanderers FC? Atlanta United’s reserve team or Victoria’s Pacific FC? Charleston Battery or FC Edmonton? Would local supporters mind if the quality of an all-Canadian matchup was marginally lower than a game with a USL opponent?

The CanPL also represents hope for Canadian soccer. As it stands, the USL Championship is sanctioned as a Division 2 league in the United States, and has no aspirations of challenging Major League Soccer (MLS) for Division 1 status. CanPL on the other hand—despite what quality it may offer in year one—is de facto Canada’s only Division 1 league; and is a league with aspirations of one day competing with MLS, Liga MX and any other league in this hemisphere. As Canada’s most established non-MLS club, many fans feel like Ottawa belongs in the CanPL. That OSEG disagrees, some would say feels like a slap in the face of Canadian soccer.

So, circle July 10th on your calendar. That will be the date when Fury FC (barring an upset by League1 Ontario side Vaughan Azzurri in the earlier round) could see their first action against a CanPL foe in the annual Voyageur’s Cup Canadian Championship tournament. They’ll likely face Halifax Wanderers FC or Winnipeg’s Valour FC. In a two-game series, Ottawa will play away on July 10th, then host one of those teams at TD Place on July 24th—and soccer fans in the capital will be able to show, with their wallets, just how invested they are in seeing CanPL opposition.

Head coach Nikola Popovic addresses players in pre-season training. Photo: Chris Hofley/OSEG.

Who’s back?

Fury FC recently announced Carl Haworth will wear the captain’s armband for 2019. Already back for a sixth professional season in Ottawa, he’s the only original Fury FC member left on the squad (and has been for several years). Always an offensive threat, last year Haworth showed his versatility as he transitioned to a new role on defence, where head coach Nikola Popovic believes he can be an even more effective player. Popovic will be looking to more effectively implement an attacking style with a defence that presses and can move the ball up quickly, something Haworth showed a lot of promise with in a right-back position.

Joining Haworth is David Monsalve, last year’s backup keeper who goes into this season as the presumed starter. Monsalve has played in multiple countries, winning starting jobs in Finland and Guatemala’s top flights. He must now fill the hole left by 2018’s USL Goalkeeper of the Year, Maxime Crépeau, now a starter for Vancouver Whitecaps FC of MLS. In a year where goals were few and far between, Crépeau was the only reason Ottawa stayed in the playoff hunt for so long. Of course, it’s a lot to ask of a goalkeeper to follow his predecessor’s award-winning season, but Monsalve—if he is to be this years starter—will need to be in top form starting Saturday.

Kévin Oliveira is another key player returning to Ottawa this season. Oliveira was indispensable in the midfield last year, and one of Fury FC’s most creative and entertaining players to watch—though prone to some untimely giveaways. Ottawa was not short on scoring chances in 2018, and Oliveira played a part in creating a large number of those. The most infuriating part about watching Ottawa last season was the lack of finish around the net, something Kévin was also guilty of at times. At only 22 years old though, he has a ton of upside, and if he can build a rapport with fellow midfielder Wal Fall and forward Christiano François, Ottawa could well have a potent attack it hasn’t seen it years.

Other returning players for 2019 are Nana Attakora, Onua Obasi, Maxim Tissot, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Chris Mannella, Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé and Jamar Dixon.

New signing Wal Fall. Photo courtesy of Ottawa Fury FC.

Who’s new?

The drama with CONCACAF could not have happened at a worse time, as it happened right in the middle of prime recruiting season. Ottawa GM Julian de Guzman told media he had several key players all but signed when shit hit the fan. With contracts pending but Ottawa’s future in doubt, several players understandably decided to sign elsewhere.

De Guzman was fortunate that German Wal Fall was still available when he signed in late January. Fall is a midfielder who brings size, skill and leadership. He can play a lot of minutes and distributes the ball extremely well, and can also chip in with some scoring. He was one of the most sought after players in the offseason and will play a key role in a stacked Fury midfield.

Christiano “The Cheetah” François. Photo courtesy of Ottawa Fury FC.

Scoring was Ottawa’s biggest problem last season, and one player De Guzman brought in to fix it is Christiano François. “The Cheetah,” spent last season with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and as the nickname might suggest, he brings a lot of speed, but also a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility on both sides of the ball. While not a prolific scorer thus far in his career, he’s an entertaining and attack-minded player. Ottawa will be hoping François can lead the Fury FC offence this year and help the team finish more chances than they did last season.

The signing of Dakota Barnathan signalled an upgrade to the Fury defence. De Guzman spoke at a recent media event saying every position would need to be upgraded in order to compete in this years USL. While 2018 saw the emergence of Thomas Meilleur-Giguère as an excellent centre-back, and a lock to start most games by the end of the season, it is important that no one get too comfortable. Barnathan is a big, talented centre-back, who can push the ball forward quickly while locking things down in the Fury end. Barnathan, TMG and Attakora should all push each other for spots in the starting 11, and lead an improved defence.

2019 predictions

Ottawa notoriously suffers from weak starts to their seasons, consistently having to dig out of early holes. So the coaching staff decided to change up their preseason format this year, spending more time in sunny Florida to give the squad an opportunity to find their form. This included some preseason games against MLS side Philadelphia Union and Icelandic first division team Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar, both stronger opposition than most preseason opponents of the past.

The first two games of the regular season are by no means do-or-die, but if Ottawa can grind out a few points on the road before their home opener on April 6, it would be a significant mental victory for the team, and go a long way to helping them in their hunt for a playoff spot.

This season marks Nikola Popovic’s second season as head coach. His first season was marred by a lack of scoring, and a style of play that did not appear to be the possession game which had been advertised. Every coach gets this excuse in Year One: they inherited players brought in by the previous administration. They weren’t his players. This year there are no excuses, and anything short of a playoff berth at the end of this season will be a considered a failure. Popovic is a good coach, and has enjoyed success before coming to Ottawa. Despite recruitment having been hindered by CONCACAF, Julian De Guzman has brought in a solid group of players, which should present an overall improved starting lineup over last year’s squad.

Daniel Kinumbe in pre-season action vs. Icelandic first division team Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar. Photo: Michael Reid.

That being said, the roster still needs filling out. Ottawa is strong on defence and in the midfield, but with only two forwards and two keepers signed, Fury FC will need reinforcements at those positions. It’s unclear if young keeper Jordan Tisseur, on loan from Montreal Impact, will strongly compete with Monsalve for that #1 position, and this fanbase still hasn’t seen a proven finisher up front.

JDG said they had Dane Kelly, the USL Championship’s all-time leading scorer, heading to Ottawa until the CONCACAF incident forced him to sign elsewhere. With Toronto FC and the Fury developing a closer relationship of late, look for TFC to possibly send a few more players on loan to Ottawa to help with these shortcomings.

Without adding a proven goalscorer, though, or barring a breakout season from say François or promising Toronto FC loanee Shaan Hundal, Ottawa will need goals by committee from a talented group of midfielders. If the midfield regulars can average 4–5 goals each, with a few more from the forwards they’ll contend with any team in the USL Championship Eastern Conference. But no one in an Ottawa Fury FC jersey has scored more than 10 goals in the USL season before. Last year’s top-scorers Steevan Dos Santos and Tony Taylor (both no longer with the club) only bagged 5 goals a piece.

Apt613 Predictions

USL regular season: 51 points
League position: 6th in the East
Playoffs: Eastern Conference semifinals
Canadian Championship: semifinal
Top scorer: Christiano François (10 goals)
Most minutes: Wal Fall
Breakout year: Jadon Vilfort
Clean sheets: 6 in all competitions
Goals for: 47 in all competitions
Goals against: 35 in all competitions

Ottawa Fury FC 2019 Roster

GK – David Monsalve 🇨🇦
GK – Jordan Tisseur 🇨🇦
DF – Daniel Kinumbe 🇨🇦
DF – Nana Attakora 🇨🇦
DF – Onua Obasi
DF – Carl Haworth 🇨🇦
DF – Maxim Tissot 🇨🇦
DF – Jadon Vilfort 🇨🇦
DF – Thomas Meilleur-Giguère 🇨🇦
DF – Robert Boskovic 🇨🇦
DF – Dakota Barnathan
MF – Wal Fall
MF – Chris Mannella 🇨🇦
MF – Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé 🇨🇦
MF – Kévin Oliveira
MF – Charlie Ward
MF – Thiago De Freitas
MF – Aidan Daniels 🇨🇦
MF – Jamar Dixon 🇨🇦
MF – Luca Ricci 🇨🇦
FW – Christiano François
FW – Shaan Hundal 🇨🇦

Ottawa Fury FC kicks off their 2019 season in Charleston, South Carolina on Saturday March 9 versus Charleston Battery. The Bytown Boys supporters’ club is hosting a viewing party at The Senate Tavern (1159 Bank Street). Kickoff is at 7:30pm. Fury FC’s home opener will be April 6 at TD Place versus Nashville SC. Tickets are available online and at the TD Place Box Office.