It would have been foolish to assume that the Atletico Ottawa side that finished bottom of the table in 2021, retooled with 17 new players and a new manager in Carlos Gonzalez, would turn the table completely upside down, win the league title, and host the Canadian Premier League final.
It would’ve been equally foolish to assume that a 19-year-old Spanish centre-half with no senior game experience would become the centrepiece of the best defensive unit in the Canadian Premier League.
We only need to look back at last year to see how a talent like Alberto Soto in the middle of the park can make an impact, but not necessarily change the team’s overall fortune.
But somehow, both this all happened. Atletico Ottawa finished top of the Canadian Premier League table, are set to host Forge on Sunday, and I genuinely believe it couldn’t have happened without our talisman at the back, Diego Espejo.
From the first moment I saw him step onto the pitch at TD Place, I knew there was something special to this young man from Tenerife.
The pre-season friendly held against the CF Montreal U23s was a special event for season ticket holders and gave us a glimpse into what the season might have in store. The confidence that he brought to his defensive duties brought about a sense of calm that I don’t think anyone had ever felt about an Atletico Ottawa defense. In the first half I noticed how in control Diego was in his own box, unafraid to use his body against would be attackers but also skilled enough to understand how to do so legally.
This second point was the crucial one, as far too often in 2021 the defence committed crucial fouls inside the box, to the tune of 10 awarded penalties for the opposition.
As the regular season began, I noticed something more about his demeanor from my spot in section W.
Not only did he maintain that poise when tasked with difficult defensive situations, such as protecting a lead with only 10 men against a swarming Cavalry side in the season opener, but he always looked like he was having more fun than anyone else on the pitch.
Diego’s smile after the opening two victories as he walked off the pitch contrasted heavily with the anger and disappointment following the 6-1 defeat to Valour.
But those inherently opposite displays of emotion came from a place of wanting to improve; and improve he did.
After a head on collision in the 4th game of the season with teammate Miguel Acosta, Diego would miss the first tie of the season against defending North Star Shield winners Pacific and then only miss two other games the rest of the season, one due to suspension and the other as a precautionary measure in the final game of the season against York.
Due to shifting tactical outlooks from the coaching staff, and pressure to perform specifically as the central defender in the 3-5-2/5-3-2 that the team settled on in the later stages of the season, Diego was assigned many roles depending on what was asked of him.
From ball playing centre-back in games where the team took a more attack minded approach, to being the last line in defence making more clearances than the other team combined, referring specifically to games late in the season against Pacific and Cavalry, when Atletico Ottawa took a page from Madrid’s book and looked to soak up the pressure, versatility was demanded from Diego, and he took the challenge head on.
For many of his age, the demands of his role in the team would be too much and it’d be reasonable to assume his performance would suffer. But Diego thrived under that pressure to grow and succeed. It even showed later in the season when he started to become more vocal throughout games, taking a page from his defensive partners Drew Beckie and Miguel Acosta. He began not only to demand more of himself but others as well.
All told, Espejo’s regular season saw him end up with 1 Man of the Match award, notoriously difficult for defenders to win, and 6 Team of the Week nods, the most of any defender on the team.
This somehow wasn’t enough to see him nominated for the defender of the year award in the CPL awards, but we as supporters know full well his impact on not only his team, but on the whole league. We don’t need the arbitrary piece of silverware to understand his impact.
But to humour those trying to discount Diego’s season, the stats tell a different story. In comparing the per90 stats of the three nominees for that award to Diego, we find the following information, as tabulated by @middlelastname on twitter.
As we can see there is a clear statistical justification for the candidacy of Diego for this award. This is in addition to what we can tell based on the eye test from watching him, week to week, particularly as a 19/20-year-old on a loan spell in a foreign country, compared to three other veteran players who have been in the Canadian Premier League since its inception.
This retelling of Espejo’s season is filled with effusive praise, but that’s not to say there weren’t bumpy moments along the way. Particularly at Starlight stadium, where Diego misjudged a ball that led to a Josh Heard goal and picked up an unnecessary yellow card in the first leg of the playoff semi-final for a tackle against, who else, Josh Heard to be suspended for the crucial second leg.
The team overcoming the adversity and making it to the Canadian Premier League final certainly does take some of the sting away from these mistakes. And, yes, it may sound like an excuse to say, “oh that was a mistake a 19-year-old makes”, but that’s the rub with young players.
They haven’t gone through the rigours of an entire professional season, and as a result will face situations that will test their mental fortitude and resilience. In the end, Diego proved his resilience in face of his mistakes and the positives he brought to this team far outweighed the negatives.
As Sunday looms large, so too does the weight of knowing this will likely be the final time we see Diego Espejo don the red and white on this side of the Atlantic. In a cup final, with the chance to become the first team in the young history of the Canadian Premier League to achieve the double. Lifting the North Star Shield would be a fitting conclusion for this Atletico Ottawa side, and for Diego the start of what will be a long and successful career.
I hope, that as I sit down on a Wednesday afternoon, years from now, with the symphony of the champions playing in my ears, that I’ll see a familiar face come across my screen standing on the pitch at the Wanda Metropolitano as a Rojiblanco proper. I hope that the memories that he helped make for us this season have just as much impact on him through what is sure to be a long and fruitful career.
The talent that we saw this season was always going to take him places in this game, but the experience, leadership, and maturity he’s developed are what will make him special.
Looking back is a tricky thing to do when you know you may never get to move forward, but people come and go in our lives and it's important to hold on to the memories that inspire the most visceral of emotions.
Sunday will likely be the final time we see Diego Espejo grace the field at TD Place, and my only hope is that before he goes, we get one final unforgettable moment from this young man.
Letting go is hard to do. It’s why you’re not supposed to fall in love with a loanee; but I damn sure fell in love with Diego Espejo.