By Jonathan Hopkins
After a very, very long offseason, the CPL season has finally returned! For the Capital, that means a return to quality football at TD Place with a rejuvenated Atlético Ottawa side ready to take on the best the CPL has to offer. Join me in exploring what the offseason has brought and what we have to look forward to in the 2023 Capital City Supporters Group Season Preview!
Returning Stars and Offseason Departures
One of the first things that teams must do once the season ends is evaluate their current roster. In ATOs case, there were a lot of tough decisions to be made. While key players like Miguel Acosta, Zachary Roy, Macdonald Niba, Zakaria Bahous, Zach Verhoven, Malcolm Shaw, Carl Haworth, and the legendary Ollie Bassett all remained under contract, several others saw their contracts end or had additional options that needed to be evaluated.
Ultimately, a few options were taken to extend players another year with the squad, while several others were declined. Veteran leaders like Maxime Tissot and Sean Melvin saw their options accepted, bringing some stability at the back of the pitch. Meanwhile, with their options declined or contracts expired, Abdoul Sissoko, Ivan Perez, Brian Wright, Keven Aleman, Chris Manilla and Ben Mckendry all said farewell to the team after being key contributors to the success of 2022. All of these departures created significant gaps in the midfield and forward positions, which meant it was time to go searching for some replacements.
Additionally, the offseason saw the retirement of captain Drew Beckie (who transitioned to the front office as Team Manager) and the end of the loans of Sergio Camus, Vladimir Moragrega, and Owen Antoniuk. These losses only further increased the gaps in the midfield and in the attack and created big defensive and leadership holes that need to be filled for 2023.
The final departure came as a surprise. While we had all anticipated that Ballou Tabla would be returning for at least another year (his transcendent talent meant he was likely to be moving onward and upward rather quickly), it was announced in late January that he would be leaving on a paid transfer to play for Turkish side Manisa FK. While players moving on is always tough, the opportunity that this presented for Ballou to play in Europe again and continue the progression of his career was too good to pass up, and we wish him all the best (and hope he will be back for a visit sometime soon!).
With so many gaps to fill, the team had a lot of work to do over the off season. They have seemed to rise to the task, and managed to sign some absolute studs.
The talent within the CPL has grown from year to year, and internal movement within the league has helped numerous players step up their game. Coming in from Pacific FC, Gianni Dos Santos arrives at a TD place that has replaced jeers with cheers. His speed and flexibility has shown to be an incredible asset in his time at Pacific and in the preseason, and he certainly has the talent to make a big splash. Coming in from rival York United, Noah Verhoeven will help provide some stability and ball control to our midfield, providing excellent passes and delivery to move the ball up and down the pitch. While these are both major signings, ATO made CPL history with the first intra-league paid transfer, taking the Halifax Wanderers' leading scorer from 2022, Samuel Salter, and bringing him to the capital. Incredible from the penalty spot, Salter is a dynamic forward who can add a Capitalour scoring production in 2023.
While we found some great talent from within the CPL, we also managed to snag key pieces from the MLS, USL and further abroad. The veteran leadership of Karl Ouimette, an MLS and USL alumnus with 18 national team appearances, will go a long way to helping fill the Beckie sized gap in our defense. His experience leading defenses, including 5 years and over 100 starts with Indy Eleven, brings some much needed guidance to what is generally a fairly young team. Speaking of young talent, ATO managed to sign one of CF Montreal's top prospects, Gabriel Antinoro, adding even more potency to our attacking midfield. Finally, we brought in another talented young player from abroad in Aboubakary Sacko from the reserve team of Ligue 2 side Le Havre. The young French midfielder will be a great option to back up and learn from veteran Maxime Tissot on the left wing.
While that is all of the signing to date, the team also managed to snag three key loans to fill gaps left behind by the departures. A familiar face to many, Diego Espejo will be returning on loan from Atlético de Madrid to help solidify our defense. A young but strong presence, we can look forward to another exciting season with him at the center of our defense. Another talented defender joining the team on loan is Luke Singh, coming in from Toronto FC. While he struggled to make his mark last year while on loan to FC Edmonton, a change of scenery will hopefully help him elevate his game. Our third loan to kick off the season comes from CF Montreal, Jean-Aniel Assi. Being the youngest ever to play with the club, and having spent the year playing for Cavalry last season, we are excited to welcome the speedy and talented winger to our ranks.
The State of the CPL in 2023
Going into the 2023 season, ATO will face dangerous challengers from all parts of the Great White North, and will have to remain in top form to reclaim their regular season title. Perennial champions Forge FC seem to have not lost a step, retaining most of the talent that won them the CPL final in Ottawa last year. Other rivals like York United also made some key upgrades, as they hope to build on their strong late season from 2022. The Halifax Wanderers have also seen a lot of change, hiring former Vaughan Azzurri coach Patrice Gheisar and looking to change their fortunes after years of disappointment. Both Pacific FC and Cavalry FC, who finished third and fourth in the 2022 season, have sharpened their rosters in order to mount aggressive 2023 campaigns. And while Valour may not seem to be the largest threat, at this level, no opponent can be taken for granted.
Unfortunately, this season will go on without FC Edmonton, as the club folded due to debt accrued over its long history in the NASL, CPL and beyond. While one club left the league, another entered, with Vancouver FC looking to make some waves in their first year with former Iranian National team coach Afshin Ghotbi at the helm. This means that the league format will be largely the same, with each team playing one another 4 times, twice home and twice away. The playoff format has seen some change, which will mean that finishing at the top of the table is all the more important (you can read about them here).
All of these teams will be competing for up to 3 positions in the CONCACAF Champions league, a continental tournament that is contested by clubs from across North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. In order to make it to that level in 2024, teams will have to finish at the top of the table, win the playoffs, or win the Canadian Championship. This means up to 3 CPL teams will be playing against international opponents in 2024. While no CPL team has ever won the Canadian Championship, given the growth of talent at the CPL level, this may be the first year a CPL team raises the Voyageurs cup.
What to Expect in 2023
2022 was an absolute blast, with great moments, great football and tons of chicanery in the Dub, and 2023 doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. The Capital City Supporters Group has continued to write chants (see the updated Chant Bible here) and focus on building a great environment for fans in the stadium and away. We hope you will be joining us on the bus down to York for the Canadian Championship game against Halifax (long story), but if you can’t make it, don’t worry! We will have many other opportunities to enjoy away games as a group. Every away game, we will be hosting watch parties at the home of football in Ottawa, the Glebe Central Pub, and hope you will join us. The beautiful game is best enjoyed in good company, and these watch parties are a great opportunity to meet fellow fans and catch the game (no subscriptions required).
We will also be providing content all season long, with weekly player ratings, the best ATO podcast around, After the Whistle, Pre-game discussions on the Hotstove Twitter Spaces, and much, much more. 2023 promises to be a very exciting year, with a plethora of new and familiar faces who promise to deliver another year of success on and off the pitch. We are kicking off the year with a march to the stadium from the Glebe Central Pub at 12pm on Saturday April 15th, and we hope to see you there!