By Patrick Gibson
What an utterly frustrating watch. On the one hand, Atlético Ottawa are unbeaten in their last 11 regular season games. On the other hand, the team has managed two draws through two CPL matches this season and are set to sit outside a playoff position. Yes, it’s incredibly early, but we’ve seen three full games from this team, and trends are beginning to emerge. The main one is that the unit feels less than the sum of its parts. This is particularly true in midfield, where the individual performances haven’t been terrible. Still, there’s clearly a gap that’s affecting the ability of the entire team to execute a given game plan. A natural solution is, of course, to find a natural defensive midfielder, but with so little time until the “pre-season” transfer window closes, the odds of that happening for the foreseeable future are slim to none. Anyway, onto the ratings:
#19 Malcolm Shaw
(7): The club’s all-time appearance leader put in another solid shift up top against Valour, grabbing his fourth assist for the club on a lovely ball to set up ATO’s goal. Playing as a lone striker as the system from Carlos Gonzalez shifted to a 4-5-1, Malcolm was called upon to do more of what he’s been doing successfully this year in holding the ball up and distributing back to the midfield to create effective counterattacks. He looked as good when shifted to the left wing for the last 15 minutes, defending effectively with Tissot and working well offensively when cutting in, setting a chance up for Zach Verhoven late on. A well-rounded performance from a man that continues to justify his place in the first eleven.
#18 Samuel Salter
(6.5): Just getting in under the wire to have an official rating (as the arbitrary cut-off I’ve set is 15 minutes of game time), Sam Salter didn’t have much chance to wow or disappoint. Coming in for Gianni dos Santos, he shifted Malcolm Shaw out to the left and provided a capable presence up top, serving decently as an outlet. With his body type, I can’t help but feel he could be doing more to initiate attacks in a similar way that Malcolm does. All told, his appearance against Valour was fine, with no egregious errors but no wow factor that the first intra-league paid transfer should have. It’s getting better, but maybe not quickly enough.
#30 Gabriel Antinoro
(6.7): Forced into the starting lineup due to Ollie Bassett’s injury, Antinoro had a quieter game than he did on Wednesday. There was only one flash of offensive flair, but he held in well against a very strong Valour midfield. Despite that, Antinoro still has to develop his ability to win duels consistently. While he managed to do so successfully against Halifax on Wednesday, he was severely lacking in his 66 minutes against a Valour midfield that posed problems for ATO. Further, this is a criticism more of the midfield as a whole, but on Valour’s goal, Sebastien Gutierrez was allowed to roam free in the gaps between the defense and midfield. Without a natural defensive midfielder, the other parts of the unit need to pick up the slack, Antinoro included. He has the ability to do so, now he just needs consistency, game in, game out.
#7 Gianni Dos Santos
(7.2): Gianni dos Santos was put in a position against Valour to succeed, and that he did. Shifting back to his traditional role along the left wing, he caused plenty of problems for the right side of Valour’s defense. Working effectively in a triangle with Noah Verhoeven and Abou Sacko towards the latter stages of the first half, he was rewarded with his first goal for Atlético Ottawa. The first-time finish resulted from a lovely bit of control and play from Malcolm Shaw, a partnership that has produced two goals in two games. As they build chemistry, it’s clear that the Ottawa counter-attack will be the most fruitful when these two are working together.
#16 Zach Verhoven
(6.5): As with Sam Salter, Zach Verhoven’s season debut falls just within the time to justify a rating. Playing in his natural position along the right side, Verhoven did look dangerous going forward, generating a chance inside the 18 that, while it went harmlessly wide, was indicative of the attacking mindset he brought to the side as a substitute last season. A couple of instances where he was unable to facilitate a cross from a clear crossing position down the right wing were frustrating, but some of that can be attributed to the turf at IG Field, and the awkward bounces abound.
#14 Jean-Aniel Assi
(5.8): Perhaps this rating comes as a result of disappointment following his first two games this season, but Jean-Aniel Assi was clearly not at the same level that he’s displayed so far this season. The assertiveness that was demonstrated against Halifax wasn’t present in his play today, as he was taking too much time on the ball down the right wing. While he recovered well defensively, it’s certainly not enough to make up for the lack of offensive output. This also doesn’t mention the missed chance late in the first half. It’s another example of how weird bounces off turf cause freak misses like that, but regardless he needed to convert. I’ve said this a number of times already this year about Gabe Antinoro, but there’s no need to panic, he’s 18, and things like this are going to happen. It’s just making sure these performances are aberrations.
#22 Zakaria Bahous
(6.6): I’m beginning to sound like a broken record about Zakaria Bahous; the man has provided a solid hand in whatever area he’s been tasked with this season. Coming in for Gabriel Antinoro in the pocket next to Jean-Aniel Assi, his assertiveness in taking tackles is encouraging, even if he isn’t winning all of them. That said, on a few occasions after these duels, the close control and transition into the attacking phase were clunky in this game. I keep referring back to the field conditions, but everyone has to play on the same surface, and you need to adjust to try and get the most out of a given opportunity. Still, I feel confident enough with Bahous fulfilling the roles he’s been given, and that’s all you can ask at this stage.
#11 Noah Verhoeven
(6.8): My praise for Noah Verhoeven has been effusive over the initial stages of this season. His distribution didn’t result in the offensive output that we had seen in midweek, but his stability in the middle of the park was still impressive, and he was able to win an impressive number of duels against a Valour midfield that was clearly up to the task. With that in mind, his role on the team still feels fairly nebulous. While his individual performances have impressed me, the space he has largely been asked to occupy still doesn’t feel natural. As a result, other players are forced to pick up the slack with certain duties, and the team doesn’t feel as settled in defense as they did last year. A natural defensive midfielder is clearly the solution; the only issue that presents itself is that if that player doesn’t come, will we be able to shake this dread that we’re all feeling even if Noah’s individual performances are to the level he’s demonstrated?
#15 Maxim Tissot
(6.6): Coming in for the injured Abou Sacko, Max Tissot was given a lighter workload than he’s been used to as a member of Atlético Ottawa. Tasked with defending one of the scarier attacking threats, Pacifique Niyongabire, through this young CPL season for the final 25 or so minutes, Tissot held up his end of the bargain. Combine that with a well-placed cross to Malcolm Shaw that resulted in a half chance from Zach Verhoven, and Tissot’s short stint on the pitch was ultimately positive. Getting a consistent rotation at left-back will be vital, as it remains to be seen if Tissot can handle a near 2400-minute workload in his age-31 season.
#91 Aboubakary Sacko
(6.5): The first start in ATO colours for Abou Sacko, perhaps his most important quality is that he can be an effective rotation piece. Of course, this depends on how his own health persists, being substituted after 66 minutes due to what appeared to be a calf injury. As for his play, he was effective enough going forward, at times losing possession but also providing an effective outlet for Gianni dos Santos to play one-twos with down the left. His runs from left back and subsequent cross generated what should’ve been the second goal for ATO if not for the miss from Jean-Aniel Assi. In defense, he was up and down, allowing some dangerous runs from Pacifique Niyongabire but also managed to keep him in check. Hopefully, his injury is nothing too serious, and we’ll see more of Abou against York.
#4 Diego Espejo
(7.4): The talisman at the back continues to impress. The only reason this rating isn’t higher is a result of the yellow card he picked up after consistently wrestling Anthony Novak over the course of the match. Despite that, Diego was wonderful in the air, as he always seems to be, and somehow even better on the ground. While not a masterclass performance in attack, there is no one I feel more confident in defensively than Diego on a week-to-week basis. Any ball that comes his way is absorbed into his radius like he has a gravitational pull. As for the Valour goal, I’ll put that down to miscommunication rather than any sort of larger issue on the part of our defense.
#20 Karl Ouimette
(7): I’ll be the first to admit that Karl Ouimette’s first two games in ATO did not inspire too much confidence. Game 3, however, was a completely different story. Tasked with the role usually reserved for Miguel Acosta, Karl was incredibly effective at sorting out any issues down the right side. Passing effectively, his long ball towards Malcolm served as the “hockey assist” on the ATO goal, and he also hopped in with a couple of runs down the right wing late as ATO looked to pull out the victory. Recovering well and winning all but one of his duels in the game, this is the Karl Ouimette many fans expected and will hope to see going forward.
#5 Luke Singh
(6.8): Luke Singh continues to impress through this young season. The 22-year-old wasn’t given as much to do over the course of the game as he may have had in the previous matches, but he still held up his end of the bargain. It’d be nice to see more success when he goes in for challenges, but sometimes the ball doesn’t fall your way in those situations. That said, the more games where he continues to avoid any truly glaring errors will do well to build his confidence and, hopefully, ensure decisiveness in his defensive play, something that plagues many young defenders.
#17 Miguel Acosta
(6.4): Even in writing this justification, the rating feels harsh. Miguel was tasked with the role of defensive midfielder against Valour, and as one would expect, a natural fullback isn’t always the solution to the giant piece that is currently missing from the Atlético Ottawa jigsaw puzzle. His play in the first half was emblematic of something I’ve noticed over the first 3 games; for whatever reason, the defensive and midfield lines, and to a lesser extent the midfield and attack, are too far apart. The presence of a natural DM reduces the impact of this as they work between the lines to eliminate the giant swath of space that teams can exploit. Miguel was poor in the first half and certainly played much better in the second half, but this rating is attributed equally to his play and the situation we’ve found ourselves in. Is that fair? Probably not, but it still needs to be considered.
#29 Nathan Ingham
(6.2): This was, for my money, the weakest game I’ve seen out of Nathan Ingham in an Atlético Ottawa shirt. Even more so than the 4-0 against Forge or the 6-1 against Valour last season, in which he conceded significantly more goals. In those instances, it felt more that there were defensive lapses that left him in no man’s land. Tonight, though, everything felt nervy when Ingham was involved. In one instance, what seemed like a simple cross to collect was punched out uncertainly. In others, the issue I mentioned recapping Wednesday’s match persisted, with very poor distribution from goal kicks, constantly finding Valour’s heads or the touchline. Everything suggests this isn’t the status quo for Ingham, but as with the rest of the team, there’s a cloud hanging over my head that something could go wrong at any moment.
I really don’t want to think about this game anymore. You learn far more from failures than successes, but whoever first said that must never have had to deal with football. Draws like this are difficult to parse through, and for professionals, the most important thing is to evaluate ways to fix flaws and try and take advantage of successes. I’ll say one good thing, I think we’ve found a formula going forward. The shift to the 4-5-1 will pay dividends with Gianni playing on the left side. Conversely, I hate to sound any alarms three games into a season, but one’s an aberration, two’s a coincidence, and three’s a trend. The team has taken twenty minutes to look even passable for the first three games. If the trend continues, I’d hate to think what a team like Pacific or Forge will do to us.
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.