Ottawa Fury FC is somewhere they’ve never been before: a real playoff hunt.
In 2015, their playoff spot rarely seemed in doubt as the club stormed their way to winning the NASL Fall Championship, while their other three seasons have all seen the Fury out of playoff contention down the stretch.
Which is why this season presents something new for the club. With eight games left, Ottawa is hanging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the USL Eastern Conference. And like many who find themselves in a new place, the Fury looked a bit lost on Wednesday evening, when the lads took on Bethlehem Steel FC in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Curiously, head coach Nikola Popovic started the game with a different formation than they’ve played with most of the year, choosing to move a defenceman (the recently acquired Canadian Clément Bayiha) to midfield, leaving Ottawa with three men in the back. Fury FC looked discombobulated for much of the first half, as Steel FC repeatedly caught their backline off-guard.
Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, in particular, would prefer to forget those first 45 minutes. Meilleur-Giguère, who is otherwise having a breakout season, let Bethlehem forward Santi Moar slip by before Moar chipped the ball over Maxime Crépeau and into the back of the Ottawa net in the 16th minute. Then, in the 32nd minute, the ball caught Meilleur-Giguère’s hand in front of the Ottawa net, resulting in a penalty kick goal and a 2-0 lead for Steel FC.
There are six, seven and if you push tight even eight teams that are looking for four places so it’s going to be a tough run until the last week.
Fury FC reverted to a four-man defensive formation for the second half, which did seem to settle things down in front of the Ottawa net. But besides an 88th minute shot (as it happens, by Meilleur-Giguère) which came within a hair of crossing the line before getting cleared, Ottawa was unable to sustain any pressure in the offensive zone, and the scoreline stayed 2-0.
Coach Popovic commented on the playoff race after the game: “I think when you behave like this, when your attitude is to the final whistle like we were today then I think we have to have hope that we can achieve the playoffs. We knew since the beginning of the season that it was going to be very, very tight. There are six, seven and if you push tight even eight teams that are looking for four places so it’s going to be a tough run until the last week.”
Still in control
Despite the loss, Ottawa still controls their destiny, however the USL schedule isn’t doing them many favours. After this Saturday’s game against Penn FC (currently 13th in the East and trending downward), Ottawa will go on a pivotal five-game road trip. They’ll go more than a month between games at TD Place. Fury FC has only won three of 12 away games so far, taking just 11 of a possible 36 points on the road (3W-2D-7L). They’ll need to improve that away record if they want to see playoff action for the first time in three years.
On paper, Ottawa’s top centre-back pairing should be Nana Attakora and David Edgar, however the two have not played together since Edgar signed in early August. With points becoming increasingly valuable, it would be shocking if Popovic doesn’t start those two together sooner than later.
The Opposition: Penn FC
While this Saturday is not necessarily a must-win, the Fury should be treating it like one. Penn FC is winless in six games, sits in 13th in the East, and has only two wins on the road all season. For Ottawa to look at itself as a bonafide playoff team, these are three points they can’t give away.
Fury FC will need to be better on defence if they’re to contain Penn FC’s star forward Lucky Mkosana. The veteran Zimbabwean has scored nine goals this season, a third of his team’s 27 goals on the year. Ottawa will need to keep the clever forward out of the 18-yard box, where he does most of his damage.
In a bit of Fury FC trivia, Mkosana was a late sub for the New York Cosmos when they beat Ottawa in the 2015 Soccer Bowl Championship.
Playing for Pride
Fury FC will be sporting a slightly different look on Saturday. As part of Capital Pride Week festivities, the boys in red and black be wearing modified jerseys with rainbow-coloured numbers, of which several will be auctioned off during the game.
To honor Pride Week we will be wearing special jerseys on Saturday, August 25 versus @PennFCOfficial with various surprises throughout the match 🏳️🌈⚽️
— Ottawa Fury FC (@OttawaFuryFC) August 16, 2018
Midfielder Chris Manella, also an ambassador for AthleteAlly, spoke before the game: “Soccer is for everyone, doesn’t matter race, religion, sexuality, it doesn’t matter, it’s for everyone.”
Ottawa Fury FC takes on Penn FC at TD Place on Saturday August 25, 2018. Kickoff is at 7pm. Tickets are available online or at the TD Place box office.