By Patrick Gibson
Photo Credits: Phil Larivière
In my analysis last week, I used the word unacceptable to describe the team’s performances at TD Place. It turns out I was a week too early to be using that word in earnest. While there were positives to take from a miserable game against York, it would take a delusional optimist to take solace in anything that happened on the pitch against Pacific. Unacceptable, meagre, amateurish, paltry, scant, wanting, or whatever other word you want to crank out of your thesaurus to describe the demonstration put forward by the 16 players for Atlético Ottawa will get no complaints from me. A second loss in this Canadian Premier League season will see Atlético Ottawa remain at the bottom of the table for a second straight week, a sight not uncommon for those of us that suffered through 2021 but a bitter disappointment nonetheless.
I’ve still provided my ratings for every player, as I will every week, but for a collective demonstration that was an abject failure, I will eschew for this round a deep dive into the minutiae of each individual performance. That is not to say that there won’t be criticisms placed at the feet of those that did not perform to their standard, but the focus of this week’s player rankings is the team as a whole and the issues that have plagued them not just in the 5 games we’ve seen this season, but those performances towards the end of the season last year.
I want to assure you that this isn’t going to be an attempt at a scathing attack on the players or the coaching staff. It’s very clear that those within the organisation feel the exact same way as we do about the results on the pitch. The despondency on their faces as they came to thank the fans on Saturday night was palpable, quite similar to the attitude following the 6-1 defeat to Valour (something I will be touching on later). It’s clear that this is a team of professionals trying to figure out a way to stop this from happening and not a situation where the team has quit on the coaching staff nor the other way around. They probably know better than we all do what the issues are, and while they may not be able to fix the overarching holes on the roster, on a micro level, they’re working to fix the mistakes that have compounded in these first 5 games to leave us where we are.
I also want to make it clear that this isn’t pressing the panic button this season. Given our previous form away from home and still having another 13 games away from home this season, there is still a very real possibility that the team can recover from this and still finish with an adequate regular season record. I don’t hold any illusions that the team will defend its regular season championship, but there is clearly enough talent on the pitch to avoid a second wooden spoon in 3 years. This caveat is not to excuse the very real problems that presently exist but more to provide perspective on the marathon that is a football season. Winds change, and with it, too, comes the performances.
At this stage, Atlético Ottawa are winless in 8 straight home games. This is now the record for most consecutive games without a win at home by a Canadian Premier League side. The wildly mediocre 2019 Valour side and the much-maligned FC Edmonton side of last season had stretches of 7 games without wins at home. I’d venture to say that this current iteration of Atlético Ottawa is markedly better than those two teams, and the lack of victory in front of their own support should be regarded as the failure it is. As of writing, it’s been 263 days since the team was victorious at home. That win against Halifax felt great at the time, but upon reflection, it was nearly another instance of the team handing it all away. To look back on that game, with a 2-0 lead in the second half, the team conceded a penalty to allow the Wanderers to equalise in stoppage time. It was very nearly another failure for a team that had little margin to do so come the end of the season, with the race for the number one seed being decided on the final matchday.
Even the positive attitude that was taken from the draws was a bit of a smokescreen to the problems this team has had playing at home. The 0-0 draw against Forge that kicked off this run was a wholly below-average performance that should’ve been a loss as a perfectly legal Kyle Bekker goal was not given, akin to Lampard against Germany in the 2010 World Cup. The 2-2 draw against York was another blown 2-goal lead in the second half, but no one remembers what happened on that day as a result of clinching the Canadian Premier League regular season title. All anyone remembers from that night was the celebrations afterwards, with the team celebrating in front of the supporters at the achievement no one thought possible. The same thing happened with the home leg in the semi-final against Pacific. As a result of our 2-0 win in Langford the week prior, the team was playing with a lead the entire 90 minutes, but in reflecting on that match, ATO was lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw. The attitude there again being satisfied with the result, but not necessarily the performance.
The result against Pacific felt like a change for the worse. Even if the team had been playing poorly at home, I never felt an inspired sense of dread like I did standing and watching the team on Saturday night. The summary destruction of the Ottawa defence through the first 15 minutes of the first half was different to any of the other results in this tortuous stretch. The first three Pacific goals were nightmares in every sense of the word, between awful giveaways from traditionally dependable players, to poor positioning from the goalkeeper on balls that could have been dealt with if a commitment had been made earlier, to poor positioning defensively from recovering players, every aspect of the Atlético Ottawa defence failed miserably to deal with rudimentary offensive tactics from the Pacific attack. Against Forge in the final last season, there was still a sense of calm about our defence. While they were clearly in control, there was never a threat of complete and total collapse at any point during the final.
These defensive lapses have caused ATO to concede first in every single game this season. While the team was able to find a way to win against Halifax in the Voyageurs’ Cup, we’re quickly beginning to realise that doing so on a consistent basis does not make for a winning formula. Yes, that much is obvious, but for a team built on quality defensive play, the consistency in poor defensive starts is nightmarish. The positives people have been takmainlying away from this season’s home performances is that the team is looking better in the second half. Last week I made the argument that a team should be playing on the front foot at home from the opening kickoff. The one thing I wish I had added to that argument is that it is much easier to look better when your opponent is giving you the opportunity to do so. It’s what ATO did away from home all last season and what we, as supporters, defended as “not being dominated”.
In the York game, for example, the reason we looked as good as we did going forward is because York let us do that. The exact same way we did it to York when we won 3-0 at YLS in July 2022 or how we beat Forge for the first time in June 2022. They sat back, defended compactly, and got a stellar performance from their goalkeeper. As supporters, we can’t have it both ways if we’re trying to analyse the game this way. Of course, our bias will skew how our perspective forms from a given result, but being honest with ourselves, we escaped with results last year in the fashion York did last week. Hell, we were even saying the same things following our draw to Halifax in the home opener, particularly as a result of a missed penalty.
The bigger problem is that we couldn’t even look decent for an entire half against Pacific. The performance level fell off a cliff, and even though the team seemed energised when Ollie scored the 3-1 goal, Pacific controlled the rest of the game. They may not have had possession, but they just looked more cohesive and wholly killed off any remaining hope with another goal from a set piece (that would’ve gone direct from the corner had Didic not directed it in). This is one thing in a long list of issues with Atlético Ottawa this season, exemplified further by a phenomenal dead ball strike from Manny Aparicio from the same area as Mo Babouli and Massimo Ferrin scored from in the previous game that was miraculously tipped onto the bar by Sean Melvin.
There are so many things I desperately want to nitpick about the performance from Saturday. Diego Espejo turned in his worst performance in the red and white stripes by a country mile. The giveaway on the initial goal was a school-boy error against a pressing Djenairo Daniels. His positioning on the second goal was somehow even worse, giving Daniels acres of space down the middle of the final third. I want to hold off some of my ire as, from my perspective, Diego didn’t seem to be playing at 100%, but the team looked far more organised defensively when Karl Ouimette came in at the beginning of the second half. Miguel Acosta wasn’t too far behind in that regard, as even though he did have some good moments against Ayman Sellouf, he played far too passively most of the time in the first half. Particularly on the third goal, where he drops in to take the space Diego leaves before Diego even leaves it and allows Sellouf free reign to run through the entire defence.
Sean Melvin’s first runout was the worst goalkeeping performance we’ve seen in the last two years, particularly the giveaway on the third goal. This continues our recent string of being unable to play out from the back at any point. It got so bad yesterday that, at times during goal kicks, the entire team had moved out to the periphery, leaving Noah Verhoeven in the middle of the park alone in what was a truly strange visual. Offensively, the continued inability to progress through the midfield remains a problem, particularly as all of our midfielders seem to be muscled off the ball by the opponents consistently. Further, the problem with Jean-Aniel Assi basically killing the play whenever he ends up on the ball down the right wing continues to persist. Hell, even the goal was hit directly at Gazdov.
In the immediate aftermath of this game, I felt worse than the 6-1 defeat last year. Part of it is structural issues about this team that feel unfixable with the current roster. When I think back to the Valour game, I remember Jose da Cunha being overmatched in the middle of the park, Abdou Sissoko playing out of position at centre-back, continuing to play a midfield two, and Brett Levis scoring an absolute wonder goal. All things that seemed freakish or fixable with proper rotation. While not every criticism I have of the performance against Pacific is above those I just mentioned, the issues are more emblematic of trends than the freak nature of the Valour result from last season. I don’t expect to continue to lose like this going forward, but we might need to be prepared for at least part of a season with a goalkeeper that can’t bail us out of games like Ingham did on a number of occasions last year.
At the end of the day, the team is going away for the next 3 games. Given they’ve traditionally played better on the road, the odds are that the results will start to shift back to the way they’ve done in the past. While positive results away from home will surely lift the spirits of the faithful tuning in on OneSoccer or Fubo, it doesn’t fix this problem as much as I’d like to believe that a community will rally around a local side no matter what. We’re not at that point yet. Wins need to come for the city to stay interested. Football isn’t ingrained like hockey or the CFL to allow for patience in years where the team isn’t performing to its standard. Beating Forge in Hamilton on Tuesday or Vancouver next Saturday is a classic tree-falling-in-the-forest scenario for the occasional match-going fan.
We’re not at a boiling point with the team, but maybe we should be. Having the longest winless streak at home of any CPL team is an absolute blight on the success we have enjoyed and should be a shame that we hold over our heads as it continues. If the results start slipping away from home as well, then we have to start asking the tough questions.
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.
Phil fell in love with soccer at the age of 5. From playing little league footie to gaming on the N64 to playing competitive U18, soccer has always been an ever-present part of his life. As he grew older, he wanted to integrate his other passions into his soccer life and began applying his skills in visual creation with graphic design, photography, and videography to the sport. By bringing these talents together, he continues to enjoy the beautiful game, make friends and showcase the sport in a variety of ways. On top of being the Dub's resident photographer, Phil has a wide portfolio of other soccer content. Check out more of his work here.