France may have been crowned World Cup champions, but there’s no shortage of high-stakes soccer to watch right here in Ottawa.
This Wednesday night, Ottawa takes on last year’s MLS Cup champions Toronto FC in the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup (also known as the Canadian Championship) semifinal. TFC are defending thee 2017 title and the winners of this tournament go on to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League against the top clubs in North and Central America. Toronto captivated Canada’s sports community this year as their Champions League run took them to the finals, where they lost to Mexican side Guadalajara on penalties.
The game is the first time Ottawa and Toronto have met since May 31, 2017, when TFC took the second leg of this semifinal 4-0. Toronto needed that strong performance to move on, after Fury FC shocked the MLS side one week earlier, taking the first leg 2-1 at TD Place. Ottawa will be looking for a similarly positive result this Wednesday.
The two clubs come into this game in very different situations than last year. Fury FC are in their first season with Nikola Popovic as head coach, and Julian de Guzman as GM. Together, the pair have shown a commitment to building Canadian soccer like no club before in this country’s history, starting 7 or 8 Canadians per game, and the club seems to be gaining momentum in USL play. They are coming off a thrilling 2-1 come-from-behind win at home on Saturday versus Penn FC, and sit just 3 points out of a playoff spot with lots of soccer left to play.
Toronto FC, on the other hand, are in the middle of a shocking season from hell. The 2017 treble-winning team has been called the best in MLS history, so, at the start of 2018, most fans expected TFC would be favoured to repeat as MLS Cup champions. Instead, they have a league record of 4W-4D-11L, are winless in 6 games, and are currently 11 points out of the playoffs. The post-season now seems all but out of reach.
But don’t go thinking Fury FC are feeling bad for poor old Toronto. They’d be happy to kick them while their down.
A lot of this semifinal will depend on who Toronto decides to play, and how much focus they intend to put on this yearès Canadian Championship. In the first leg of last year’s semifinal, Toronto rested key players including stars Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. They clearly hoped that, in a busy MLS season, they could rest their stars by playing some of their substitutes and still beat Ottawa’s second division club.
They were wrong, and had to put out their strongest lineup in the return game to ensure they’d eliminate pesky Ottawa. This year, with Toronto so far out of their MLS playoffs, will they shift focus totally toward winning the Canadian Championship? And a berth into the Champions League? Or will they rest their stars again in Ottawa, clinging to the hope they can still fight their way back into MLS playoff contention?
Ottawa, on the other hand, has made their commitment to the Canadian Championship very clear. The Voyageurs Cup is their primary focus, not the USL. Between Ottawa’s qualifying round series versus AS Blainville and the last few USL matchups, Popovic has made it clear he has a preferred lineup at midfield and defence. Look for Dixon, Mannella and Oliveira to start at midfield, with Obasi, Meilleure-Giguere, Attakora and Edward on the backline.
Reid and Taylor will likely start at forward—no surprises there. They should be joined by either Steevan Dos Santos or new signing Daniel Haber. Dos Santos is one of the few proven scorers in Ottawa’s lineup, but Haber played extremely well when he came on in the 57th minute against Penn FC on Saturday. The report on the Canadian forward is that he is has a ton of speed and skill, but simply didn’t fit the style of play with his former club FC Cincinnati. Popovic could choose to give Haber his first start with Ottawa on Wednesday night.
Injuries on both sides
Ottawa will have three key players unavailable for Wednesday’s game. Captain Carl Haworth is out with an ankle injury, but hopefully won’t miss too much time. He told Théo Gauthier of ottawasports.ca that he’ll be out three to four weeks. Maxim Tissot is reportedly out for the season with a knee injury. Gerardo Bruna has been out with a knee injury for two months. No update has been provided by the club, but he could conceivably become available soon.
Toronto has several players unavailable due to injury, and key players missing are Jozy Altidore and Victor Vázquez. Midfielder Vázquez has been dealing with a knee injury for the better part of two months, and Altidore’s foot surgery has really set back the Toronto attack. He’s still got at least a week or two before he’ll be able to return.
Keys to the game
This game could be a tale of two goalkeepers. Maxime Crépeau has been playing so well this year, there is concern Ottawa may not be able to keep him. Crépeau is on loan from Montreal Impact, and there’s no doubt he’s been playing at an MLS level in Ottawa. As long as Maxime continues to play at the level he has, Ottawa can keep it close with Toronto.
At the other end, Toronto keeper Alex Bono has been shaky much of this season, to the point where there is speculation he’ll get pulled as their starter in favour of Clint Irwin. Ottawa will want to pressure Bono early and often. If Fury FC can put TFC on their back heels and even get an early goal, it will change the complexion of the series.
Players to watch
Adonijah Reid: This has been Reid’s breakout year. The 18 year-old has been an absolute spark plug all season, and Ottawa’s most consistent offensive threat. He finally scored his first, second and third goals of the season on June 24th against New York Red Bulls II, and nearly got his fourth on Sunday against Penn FC, hitting the post on what should’ve been a highlight reel goal.
The game against TFC will be Ottawa’s biggest stage of the season, and a time where Fury FC’s best players will need to rise to the occasion. Reid could be a staple on Canada’s national team in the near future, and this game is a chance for him to show everyone why.
Ottawa Fury FC takes on Toronto FC at TD Place on Wednesday, July 18. Kickoff is at 7:30pm. Tickets are available online or at the TD Place box office.