By Patrick Gibson
Photo Credits: Freestyle Photography / Matt Zambonin
Before we get into the meat of this performance, there’s a bit of a mea culpa on my part. For those I unwittingly terrified regarding the potential Diego Espejo suspension, I’m sorry. Now that's out of the way, Atletico Ottawa turned in a very solid performance against Valour that featured the debut of our two superstar signings. While there were some tense moments, thanks particularly to Pacifique Niyongabire, ATO, on the game's balance, deserved the 3 points and likely should’ve had more than the 2 they managed to put behind Rayane Yesli on the day. A collective win like this is vital given the mid-week fixture against Cavalry fast approaching and in hopes of revitalising a playoff campaign. On to the rankings:
#18 Samuel Salter
(6.9): With new blood injected into the squad, Sam Salter was tasked with a far different role from what he was used to on Sunday. Playing as the left winger in defence, Salter was asked to track back far further than at any other point this season. The unfamiliar pairing of him and Sacko defended well down the left flank throughout the first half before Salter returned to his usual striker role at the half. After being unable to win an aerial duel against Pacific last week, Salter went 4/6 against Valour and added 4/7 ground duel wins to that tally. It’s funny to talk about the defensive acumen of a player you’re accustomed to seeing at the head of the attack, but that was the best feature of Salter’s performance. His offensive statistics may have lagged, but only slightly. Still, it was lovely to see Salter function well in a secondary role for 45 minutes, even if it might create a bit of a logjam at the hybrid left-wing/second-striker role if it turns out he’s best suited.
#99 Ruben Del Campo
(7): Watching Ruben Del Campo in the first half on Sunday felt like a breath of fresh air. The attacker brings a dynamic presence to the Atletico Ottawa attack that this side has never had. After 4.5 seasons of strikers that work best when holding up the play and functioning as target men in the box, Del Campo’s speed was on full display in the first half against Valour. Particularly in the 14th minute when he found himself 1 on 1 with Yesli after a lovely long ball forward from Luke Singh put him behind the defence. If not for a block from the right knee of Andrew Jean-Baptiste, he would’ve marked his debut with a goal. While much of his presence isn’t going to show up on the stat sheet for this particular performance, his ability was certainly on display. The output will come if the input continues forward as it did on Sunday.
#19 Malcolm Shaw
(6.9): Returning from a relatively successful spell with Trinidad and Tobago at the Gold Cup, Malcolm Shaw was in fine form against Valour, doing what he’s done best in red and white. On a couple of occasions, he made the Valour defenders look silly, dribbling through them and creating chances for himself and for his teammates that were unfortunately snuffed out by an inform Yesli. A couple of ticky-tack fouls can be forgiven as they were in positions that did not pose any immediate threat, as is usually the case with fouls Malcolm picks up. The high level of play from all three strikers in this game will certainly weigh on the mind of Carlos Gonzalez when it comes to team selection. That they can all play other positions will potentially ease that trouble, but damn if it isn’t a good problem to have.
#16 Zach Verhoven
(NR): It feels cruel not to give a goalscorer a rating, but given Zach came on in injury time and the only thing he did in 2 or 3 minutes on the pitch was slot home the dagger, there’s not really much to judge. The super sub of all super subs continues to be at his best in the dying minutes of the game — the complete definition of a finisher.
#22 Zakaria Bahous
(6.8): With everyone around him playing at a higher level than normal, Bahous’ performance was slightly lost when watching from the stands. Upon further viewing, Zakaria continued to play at a good level holding in the midfield. The most notable statistical element to that effect was the 8 recoveries he made, signifying a player that was able to track back and snuff out any danger that was posed by his opposite numbers. The lack of possession for ATO explains much of the lesser quantity Bahous provided and his substitution at halftime. With all 3 ground duels won and 2 of 3 tackles won, the 22-year-old continues to prove his worth in this new set-up. The logjam in the middle of the park will only grow with Zapater’s arrival, as it seems to be doing everywhere else on the pitch, but with the way he continues to show up, Bahous will be getting minutes regardless.
#10 Ollie Bassett
(8): While the Redblacks may have taken over Olliewood Hill for some fancy seating area, the rest of TD Place remains our ginger prince’s domain. Converting from the spot in the 25th minute was the cherry on top of a splendid performance from the reigning MVP. It’s funny to note that even with the goal, Ollie will likely be frustrated as two glorious chances in the later stages of the game were left wanting. That said, 57 touches on the ball, 5 shots, 2 chances created, and winning more ground duels than he lost is everything you want to see from the engine in midfield. Not to mention the absolute peach of a ball he sent in the 74th minute to Abou Sacko that the young Frenchman, unfortunately, sent over the crossbar. Even defensively, he was up to the task, managing 5 interceptions on the day. It’s tough to say that our success comes and goes with Ollie’s effectiveness, given the talent demonstrated this year, but it still holds more than a kernel of truth. More of this type of game will get Atletico Ottawa back into the upper ranks of the CPL standings, where we all thought we would be, come the beginning of the year.
#11 Noah Verhoeven
(7.1): When looking at the stat sheet after this match, you’d be right to assume that Noah’s performance was one of low activity but high efficiency on the offensive end. You’d be right. You’d also be right to say that he was highly active defensively. Watching from the stands, Noah was sprinting around the pitch, trying to close out on any would-be Valour attackers, getting into a team-high 11 ground duels. While he only managed to win 5 of them, the defence behind him more than made up for anything that may have occurred afterwards. 30 touches is a decent amount for a slightly more offensively-minded midfielder, but I’d like to see a few more passes than 12 attempted in 68 minutes of play. That does come from the ATO style, but Noah being more involved could produce some magic, as it did earlier in the year. Still, Noah functioned well alongside Ollie against Valour and will need to keep this up to keep seeing the field.
#30 Gabriel Antinoro
(6.5): In about 20 minutes, Gabi Antinoro could not provide the normal spark he’s infused in many of his recent appearances. That might have been different if Abou Sacko had converted on the lovely ball Gabi played through to him. Still, we will need Gabi to contribute nearly 1000 U21 minutes this season, and any appearance where he’s contributing is a net positive on the overall scope of the campaign. That said, his brief stint didn’t produce a single duel win nor a successful dribble in multiple attempts for each. There’s always room to improve for a 19-year-old in his first professional season, I say now for the umpteenth time, and performances like this are fine as a floor if the skill ceiling is there.
#9 Carl Haworth
(7.4): The first full 90 of the season for Carl Haworth was a resounding success, and on his birthday nonetheless. As I mentioned previously, his weaker games so far this season have been when he was substituted out of position onto the left wing. In those situations, he tries hard to cut inside onto his preferred right foot, but it’s clear he functions far better as a traditional winger than inverted. His assist on Zach Verhoven’s late goal was an absolute peach of a ball but wasn’t the outstanding element of his performance. His interplay with Ollie Bassett continues to impress as the two work off one another down the right wing. He could improve on his long passes, as 0/5 is a mark no one would praise, but he contributed to both ATO's goals by consistently being in the right spot at the right time. The veteran presence is welcome on the pitch, and it’s a pretty nice birthday present to claim three points.
#21 Alberto Zapater
(7.4): The 38-year-old debutant saw more time than I was expecting but was impressive with every minute. Given the adjustment to turf, I figured that, at most, we’d be seeing Alberto for 20 minutes, particularly as ATO is set to play Cavalry in Calgary on Wednesday, one of the two natural grass fields employed by Canadian Premier League teams. That said, his presence was much needed for an ATO side lacking a true defensive midfielder. From the stands, it was clear as day that Alberto had command of everything that was going on ahead of the defensive line and, despite not being fluent in English, still able to communicate well with his teammates on how to manoeuvre through the midfield. Going forward, he did what you would expect from a holding midfielder by keeping it simple. 16 of 18 completed passes and 5/6 duels won in his half of play is the statistical result of what was a fundamental success in his role.
#91 Aboubakary Sacko
(7.5): In 10 minutes, Abou Sacko somehow replayed Gianni Dos Santos’ entire first half of the season. 3 big chances missed in that short span feels almost impossible, and yet it happened. Of course, I’m hyperbolizing a tad with this, but the collective feeling of Section W as Sacko found himself staring at what could’ve been 4 goals was pure disbelief. That said, the runs he made to get in position to convert those chances were sublime. This is the best Sacko has looked in an extended run all season, and it bore fruit in his defensive game as well in the first half, where he was playing as a traditional left-back. 4 tackles won, 3 clearances, 2 interceptions, and a 50% win rate on duels are the makings of a stronger competitor for regular time down the left wing. That said, he did start to feel more comfortable with the introduction of MacDonald Niba in the second half, potentially a sign of how he wants to play going into the second half of the season. Hopefully, in the next game, he can convert if he’s given those kinds of chances again.
#17 Miguel Acosta
(7.5): San Miguel is back in full form. No longer tasked with filling in the middle of the park, the defender we have all praised for the better part of 2 years is home at right back. Following the wing swap that Valour employed early in the second half, he was tasked with marking the ever-dangerous Pacifique Niyongabire and did so expertly. He may not have had the same success rate as last week, but he was just as active defensively. 10 clearances, 7 recoveries, and an overall 8 of 13 success rate in duels are emblematic of the performance we expect from Miguel when not having to learn an entirely new role. Further, he was far more active offensively, with 37 completed passes, 74 touches, and 7 passes into the final third. He’s always been underrated for his ability to contribute to the side offensively from right back, and the dynamic down an already dangerous wing will evolve further as the season wears on.
#5 Luke Singh
(7.6): Returning to the starting lineup due to the suspension of Diego Espejo, Luke Singh looked like he never left for international duty. He began his day with a lovely ball to set Ruben Del Campo through on goal inside the first 15 minutes and, from there, grew as the game went on. One particular sequence at the end of the first half stood out, as he faced an awkward long ball and pressure from the Valour press. He calmly took the ball down and found an outlet in Abou Sacko to relieve any potential consequences. It was a mature sequence from a player that’s been prone to an error or two as the season has gone on and a sign of continued development. While only winning 2 of 6 duels, he still controlled the game with his feet, going 11 of 16 on long balls and providing 84% pass accuracy, a breath of fresh air after the calamity that was passing against Pacific last week. Having three centre-backs capable of playing like this is vital to maintaining fitness as the season progresses. Confidence in defence is the key to making this system work, and Luke Singh playing this way only helps to breed more.
#3 MacDonald Niba
(7.2): Towards the end of the game, it looked like we might have been in for another unfortunate moment in the injury history of MacDonald Niba. Fortunately, he could see out the remainder of the game and didn’t look worse for wear in doing so. Niba was once again at his best in providing an outlet to Nathan Ingham on long balls for it, winning headers at the halfway line and generating possession out of goal kicks. Going forward, he also made a marauding advance, beating at least two Valour defenders in running about half the length of the pitch. It’s not an element of his game that is the most graceful, but that sort of effectiveness is always welcome. Defensively, he was better positionally than in 1v1 situations, as he did not win any of the tackles he attempted, but still made up for that with a 5/8 ratio in duels. The only caveat is that the last time he had two good games consecutively, he went down early in the third. Hopefully, that won’t be the case against Cavalry, and we can continue to enjoy the healthy defensive reinforcements that Niba provides.
#20 Karl Ouimette
(7.8): It appears that haircuts give players special powers. This isn’t to say that Karl Ouimette was ineffective before Sunday, more so that he seemed to level up. I genuinely believe he had a magnet in his head, as everything that came close to him was redirected. That he only is credited with 3 headed clearances and 6 of 8 aerial duel victories feels low from what I saw of the veteran centre-back. 85% pass accuracy and managing not to commit any fouls are vital signs of stability, which is necessary when you’re the veteran presence in defence and are without the partner with whom you’ve shared defensive responsibilities when the team’s been at its most successful this season. I firmly believe Karl is better suited to playing as an out-and-out central defender rather than the hybrid fullback role he was tasked with earlier in the season. Bursting forward never felt like his strong suit, he’s showing that being the rock at the back very much is instead.
#29 Nathan Ingham
(6.8): At this point, I probably should stop harping on the distribution of goal kicks, as it isn’t always negatively impacting our ability to generate possession or prevent the opponent from scoring, at least at home. 5/17 on long balls is never a pretty sight, but otherwise, Nathan Ingham managed to do the most important thing, keep a clean sheet. His save on Kian Williams’ shot was sublime and the only shot Valour managed to direct on target. A few key punches also denied would have been chances for the Winnipeg side, which wasn’t certain from Nathan in our previous games against Valour. All told, Ingham did what he had to do, and looks like he’s stepping back towards the form that saw him nominated for keeper of the year last season.
For the first time, Atletico Ottawa have won three consecutive games at home. A far cry from earlier in the year when we were on the verge of having 10 straight without a win, certainly. It comes with a brand of football that has developed from the hard defensive strategy that got the team to where it did last season. There’s more venom on the counter, there’s a willingness to be a bit more free-flowing while still respecting the defensive principles that underpin any success that this team might manage. With the game against Cavalry marking the halfway point of the season, we can take stock that we’ve already scored 3 more goals than last year. That might be the only positive in comparison, as we’ve earned 9 fewer points and conceded 4 fewer goals, but if the upswing that this game felt like continues, those gaps might be erased quickly.
Having joined CCSG in 2022, Patrick started his footie career playing at the age of 4 and began watching the pros around the same time. While the first pro team he supported was Manchester United, as soon as Atlético Ottawa came to town, he was immediately on board. His wealth of footie knowledge has been a constant asset, along with his role as caretaker for Atléti Wikipedia pages.