By Patrick Gibson
With the contracted players and those with options covered, our off-season preview moves on to those completely out of contract for 2023. With 5 regular roster players set for negotiations, among 4 loanees expiring, and one development player whose future is uncertain, the level of turnover may be relatively stable for a team at this level. That said, the concentration of these players in certain positions means deals need to be reached quickly to avoid having to scramble at the last moment for anyone who can fill the void or, as it turned out last year, having to wait half a season for that void to be filled in the first place.
We can talk about his slow start to the season until we’re blue in the face, but the fact is, Nathan Ingham would be the single most impactful departure to the overall health of this team. There was a void of leadership that bore out on the pitch at the end of the season, and he took that weight and placed it firmly on his shoulders. Not to mention, he began to play like the 2022 version of himself once again. Carrying that into 2024 is the solid foundation upon which this retooling will need to happen. Trying to find a goalkeeper is always a chore in a world where those who can make an impact on the game are few and far between. To replace a talented player and also a leader on the pitch is a nigh-on impossible task. This is, without a doubt, my number one priority for the beginning of the off-season. If Nathan Ingham isn’t in Atletico Ottawa red and white come next season and hasn’t taken a step forward in his career, questions should be asked of management.
On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure what the end goal should be for Sean Melvin in Ottawa. His stint covering for Ingham’s injury early in the season was mercurial. Enough good moments to want to keep him around but enough uncertainty to question whether he is capable of being number 1 roll week in, week out (despite his number). Keeping continuity with your keepers can only help to solidify the defensive structure of a given side, but with Melvin approaching 30 and the game time maybe not being what it would be in other places, perhaps the Victoria-born keeper takes his chances elsewhere for 2024. Would I like to see Melvin back as a backup option for a third-year running? I think so. Is it anywhere near the top of my priority list? Not so much, even if we don’t have a keeper under contract.
Speaking of mercurial, the one player I genuinely couldn’t figure out how to evaluate at one point this season, the left back that has frustrated and wowed the Atletico Ottawa support over the last two years, Maxim Tissot. I certainly didn’t expect Tissot to provide the same level of continuity in 2023 that he did in 2022, playing the most games and minutes of his career in his age-30 season, but the amount of time he did miss due to injury makes the potential contract decision even more difficult. I think the time has passed to rely on him as a starter at the left back/left wing back position, and if he does come back, it should be as a depth option with lowered expectations and responsibility. To not allow a native son to come back and instead play elsewhere would be a bad look for a side trying to grow its relationship with the local soccer community, but to keep Tissot as our primary go-to on the left side of the pitch would be an equally terrible look for our ambitions in 2024.
We come now to Macdonald Niba, who has been the go-to example of “availability is the best ability” for Atlético Ottawa over the past two seasons. When he’s been able to play, he’s been far more effective than not, but that has come in fewer than half of the games that Atlético Ottawa has played, with a handful of his appearances coming as a substitute in the waning moments. By all reports, he is a phenomenal piece of the locker room and an absolute gem of a human. To try and fill that void with new people is always going to be a challenge, but at a certain point, you have to produce the necessary results on the pitch. If you can’t get out there to do that, I’m not sure you are fit to take up a roster spot.
If there’s any no-brainer move for this club to make in the offseason, it’s to have Tyr Walker locked up for the foreseeable future. A local boy who will count towards u21 minutes for 2024, Tyr managed to come in and do an impressive job in a wounded defense in 2023. He can be a key piece of a defensive unit that looks to be turning over significantly heading into 2024. Tyr has the potential to be the player who will be looked at years from now as the place where the talent pipeline in Ottawa truly began to emerge. Yes, Jonathan David and Matteo De Brienne, among others, may have been able to forge their own identities and paths as professionals, but Tyr coming back to Atlético Ottawa for multiple seasons going forward will serve as “the” example for the young players across this city that they will be able to play and be appreciated in their own backyard.
Signed to development contracts at various points over the last two seasons, Omar Darwish is an interesting case for 2024. Watching him play with OSU Atletico in Ligue 1 Québec and for the Carleton Ravens men’s team has me bullish on his potential, but I’m still not sure he’s there yet. He no longer qualifies for the exceptional young talent contract that was introduced by the CPL this season and may serve as one of the draft picks for ATO in the upcoming draft to protect him from other potential CPL sides. This would provide an option for him to be with the team next year, while also allowing him to return for his sophomore season at Carleton next year. Within the next two or three years, I do think there’s a roster space for Omar; I just don’t see how we take the step of signing him to a full professional deal with other, more pressing concerns the team has to deal with.
The 4 Loans:
I’ve chosen to group our four expiring loan contracts together as, unfortunately, I feel like this is the last we’ve seen out of all of them. It’s especially difficult to hear as all four were incredibly vital parts of the 2023 set-up. Diego Espejo continued to be the absolute rock at the back that we had all become accustomed to from 2022. With the trial at Inter Miami in January signaling a potential move upwards, for him to come back for a third season seems unfathomable. Ilias Iladis, the last addition to the 2023 roster, cemented his place in the starting XI through the end of the season, but given he will still be taking a roster spot in Montreal next season, I doubt they will be looking to lose out on that roster spot for nothing by loaning him out once again. Luke Singh came in and established himself as a rock at the back, and despite a couple of lapses here and there, he was essential to any sort of success that ATO enjoyed in 2023. It remains to be seen what the setup will look like at TFC next year and if he factors into their long-term plans. It would be nice to see him back, but that would require a few steps before it becomes a realistic expectation. Jean-Aniel Assi remains the most likely of the 4 to come back, in my mind, as he made strides from his 2022 season with Cavalry with ATO in 2023. He’s still frustrating in his end product, but with him still being able to accumulate u21 minutes next year and Montreal not having him count against the MLS roster, the road to having him back next season is much clearer than for the other 3 loanees.
Of all these players, I figure only 2 are absolute must-haves for 2024. Ingham and Walker are what should be treated as the highest priorities both because of their ability and what they mean to the club on and off the field. I’d have added Espejo and Iliadis to this list, but it’s clear to me that it is unlikely they will be back next year for various reasons. Otherwise, there are holes to fill, and management needs to make the correct decisions to avoid the disastrous start that this team experienced in 2023. That failure can be put down to recruitment. In the immortal words of George W. Bush, Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me, you can't get fooled again.
For another perspective using statistical models, be sure to look out for CCSG by the Numbers, where Alexander Brazier Rymek will be giving his thoughts on who we should bring back from those out of contract.
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.