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Antoine Coupland and Ajay Khabra fight for a ball in training. Photo: Atlético Ottawa (Twitter).

Season Preview: An island introduction for Atlético Ottawa

By Josh Lemoine on August 11, 2020

On that cold morning in late January when it was officially announced that Atlético Ottawa, owned by famed Spanish club Atlético Madrid, would be the start-up Canadian Premier League’s eighth club, few could have predicted the hurdles and difficulties this club would have to overcome before finally taking the field. That said, nearly seven months later, Ottawa fans will finally get their first look at the new team… from a distance.

The Island Games

No, you won’t be able to go to an Atlético Ottawa game at TD Place this year. In lieu of a normal season, which simply can’t take place in 2020, the Canadian Premier League is putting on The Island Games tournament. Beginning this week, The Games are a 40-day competition taking place in Charlottetown, PEI, with the CPL championship title and a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League up for grabs.

Like other sports leagues who have, so far, put on successful tournaments without COVID-19 infections (such as the NHL, NWSL, and CEBL), CPL teams have arrived in Charlottetown and will live and compete in a “bubble.” Supporters will not attend matches, though every match will be available to watch on the digital platform OneSoccer, and it’s expected that several matches will air on CBC. Atlético Ottawa matches will also be broadcast on TSN1200 radio.

All teams entering the competition are guaranteed seven matches in the first round of play (round robin against every team), with the top four moving on to a six-match group stage. The top two teams from this group stage will then play in a one-game winner-take-all for the 2020 CPL championship title.

Schedule

Atlético Ottawa will play its first-ever competitive match on Saturday, August 15 against York9 FC. Kickoff is at 12pm. They’ll look forward to two games per week (one midweek and one Sunday) until the first-stage finale on September 6 against Halifax Wanderers FC. If the Ottawa club can crack the top 4, they’ll move on to the group stage (dates TBD).

Mista’s Men

On Monday, Ottawa announced their six final signings for the 2020 season. Atlético now has 23 players signed, though only 20 will be able to participate in The Island Games due to pandemic travel issues.

In building his club, Spanish coach and GM Mista has managed to attract some key players who will be relied on heavily if Ottawa is to have any success at The Island Games. Two players expected to lead and direct the squad from midfield are Canadian Ben Fisk and Mexican import Francisco Acuña.

Francisco Acuna in training. Photo: Atlético Ottawa (Twitter).

Ottawa was making a statement when they announced Fisk, who spent his 2019 season with Pacific FC, as the club’s first-ever signing. The 27 year-old Canadian is a natural left-winger but can also play on the right, and brings a wealth of experience from the national team program and various European and North American leagues. Fisk embodies Mista’s vision for the team, which echoes that of parent club Atlético Madrid: Build a club that is extremely sound defensively, and able to counterattack with precision.

Another statement signing was Francisco Acuña, who made the surprising jump from LigaMX. While the 32 year-old Mexican can play either wing, we expect him to be called upon to lead Ottawa’s attack from the centre of the field. Until now, Acuña had spent most of his career playing in LigaMX, North America’s top league. Known for his vision, footwork, and exact passing, Acuña is a player with an extremely high soccer IQ, and may prove himself to be a top player in the CPL.

Both Fisk and Acuña are talented leaders, able to play effectively at both ends of the pitch, and will lead this club in the “Atleti” mentality. As Fisk and Acuña go, so goes Atlético Ottawa.

Prodigal Son Returns

Given the 2020 season was originally scheduled to start in April, only a few short months after the club was announced, assembling a full squad was always going to be a massive task. It had been thought by some that Atlético Ottawa might choose to sign a number of former Fury FC players (some of whom hadn’t yet left the city after that club folded) in order to fill out their roster. It appears, though, that the new club wants a fresh start and has brought in all new players except one: local youth phenom Antoine Coupland.

Coupland signed his first professional contract last year with Fury FC at the age of 15 and made appearances in three games. One of the youngest players ever to suit up professionally in Canada, he is the youngest player currently signed to a CPL roster. It is a testament to the potential shown by this young midfielder from Chelsea, Quebec, that a club with the backing of Atlético Madrid is now looking to develop him.

Coupland showed flashes of brilliance in the minutes he earned with Fury FC. Another year older now, don’t be surprised to see him racing up and down the right side of midfield, possibly even as a starting player. His former teammate Onua Obasi chimed in on Twitter, saying Coupland should indeed earn starts during the tournament.

With the right guidance, Coupland’s journey will only start in Ottawa. It may not be long before we see him in the international spotlight.

Expectations

It’s difficult to have many expectations for a team that hasn’t even played a proper match together. The format of these Island Games makes the competition more of a sprint than a marathon. Any team with a slow start will quickly see themselves on the outside, struggling to get back into the top 4.

Teams like Hamilton’s Forge FC and Calgary’s Cavalry FC (last year’s finalists), who have most of their core players returning, will be seen as tournament favourites. Success in Charlottetown may come down to any combination of roster depth, health and fitness (with games essentially every three days), player chemistry and luck. However, in a tournament that will take place at such a frenzied pace in such a short time, no club can be counted out.

Malyk Hamilton joined Atlético Ottawa after one season with Cavalry FC. Photo: Atlético Ottawa (Twitter).

That Ottawa was able to assemble a full roster at all, in the craziness that is 2020, is truly an accomplishment. That they’ve put together a club with as many quality pieces as they have is next to a miracle. On paper, Ottawa should be competitive in most games, but it’ll be no surprise if they start the tournament looking a little less cohesive than their counterparts, who all have core players who played together last season. But if Atlético can steal some points in the early games, and build that comfort level with each other, anything can happen.

Look for Mista to use a traditional Atlético 4-4-2 formation and lean on his more defensive-minded players to start the tournament. Spaniard Nacho Zabal is the likely starter in goal, but Canadian Ricky Gomes is more than capable if Zabal falters. There’s a good chance we’ll see Mista test forwards Maksym Kowal and Malcolm Shaw as Ottawa’s main threats up front.

As they say in Madrid, Aupa Atleti!

Atlético Ottawa 2020 Island Games Roster

GK – Nacho Zabal
GK – Ricky Gomes 🇨🇦
GK – Horace Sobze Zemo
DF – Brandon John 🇨🇦
DF – Gianfranco Facchineri 🇨🇦
DF – Michel Djaozandry 🇨🇦
DF – Vashon Neufville
DF – Milovan Kapor 🇨🇦
DF – Jarred Philips 🇨🇦
MF – Malyk Hamilton 🇨🇦
MF – Viti Martinez
MF – Francisco Acuña
MF – Ben Fisk 🇨🇦
MF – Antoine Coupland 🇨🇦
MF – Ajay Khabra 🇨🇦
MF – Ben McKendry 🇨🇦
FW – Malcolm Shaw 🇨🇦
FW – Matteo de Brienne 🇨🇦
FW – Mohamed Kourouma
FW – Maksym Kowal 🇨🇦

Players signed but unable to travel due to pandemic restrictions:

MF – Bernardhino
MF – Tevin Shaw
FW – Kunle Dada-Luke 🇨🇦


Atlético Ottawa kicks off their inaugural season in Charlottetown, PEI this Saturday, August 15, when they take on York9 FC at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Alumni Field at noon.