By Patrick Gibson
With the CPL season having finally wrapped up, the longest offseason in the world of football has officially begun. It won’t be until April next year until we see Atletico Ottawa take the pitch once more. At this level, one of the most common features is a heavy amount of roster turnover, but before we get into the weeds of who might not be here next year in the coming weeks, let’s take a look at those still under contract for Atletico Ottawa and what role I hope they’ll be fulfilling in what will be a more successful 2024 campaign.
There was a bright light of optimism shining on Abou Sacko as we closed out our second game of the season against Valour. His speed down the left wing saw him get opportunity after opportunity and probably should’ve had a hat trick. This light was immediately cast aside as in a substitute appearance days later against Cavalry. He would go down with a leg injury that would see him miss the remainder of the season. At 21 years old, he still fills the crucial role of a u21 international player who is required to fill the full complement of 7 international players. This pales in comparison, however, to the expanded role that I hope to see him in down the left side this season. Whether that is in the left-back role that we had expected Abou to feature in or as a more traditional left-winger to get in behind defenses with his elite speed, I’m not yet sure. Above all else, we need a fully healthy season from Sacko. He needs to bulk up a bit more to be able to handle the stresses of a full season on his body, and with a long offseason to be able to do so, there can’t be any excuses for not being in the proper shape. If he can’t, there’s no reason to extend him any further.
The only remaining central defender under contract, Karl Ouimette’s role as the veteran presence in the back line will be further underlined in the offseason. With both Diego Espejo and Luke Singh’s loans expiring this offseason and neither likely to return, Karl will be tasked with imparting the knowledge of the system to those who are brought into the defense. His previous season had both highs and lows aplenty that will need to be accounted for in the recruitment process. Namely, Karl should not be trusted as the primary ball-playing defender in a back three. If the current tactic is to be used, that will be the first priority in acquiring a new central defender. Karl’s presence in the air is one that can be relied upon and will serve as a welcome complement to any of the prospective partners that are on the horizon.
As the season wore on, it became clear that Noah wasn’t going to ascend past just being a depth piece in the middle of the park. Going forward, I don’t foresee that changing, barring a significant improvement in pre-season. The central midfielder started the 2023 campaign as an effective piece of the first XI, but given the results that the team brought, I don’t know if a true contender in this league can have Noah be a week-to-week player in the system we’re playing. It doesn’t serve his strengths, and as a result, I can’t see him featuring next year. The pieces we bring in around him will dictate if the midfield can truly exert itself within the Canadian Premier League. Not to mention, a certain other returnee may also be looking to have his true breakout season.
That breakout candidate is one Gabriel Antinoro. I think I speak for most of the fanbase when I say that the most exciting prospect for next season, as of right now, is the young central midfielder. At only 19 years of age, he’ll feature heavily due to the u21 Canadian minutes rule but also because of his dogged determination. The energy he brought on the pitch when afforded the opportunity is what endeared him to me so heavily over the course of 2023. Add in the two goals he managed to score in his first professional season, and the sky’s the limit for Gabi. That said, the weight of expectation has to be managed for such a young player. We are right to expect the world from him in his second season but also need to realize that he still has plenty of room to grow into the player that he absolutely can be. If certain departures are to happen this offseason, I think it would be a disservice to Gabi not to see him in a more featured role in 2024, and not just because we need to make up the under 21 minutes.
Gianni Dos Santos:
On the other end of the spectrum from Antinoro comes Gianni dos Santos. Similarly to Abou Sacko, Gianni faced a number of injury issues this season, halting momentum for what was a relatively productive first few weeks of the season. Unfortunately, when he did come back to the lineup, he failed to live up to the standard that both the fans had set for him and the coaching staff as well. At times, at the end of the season, Gianni looked disinterested and disconnected from the rest of the team on the pitch. Knowing that he had a second season on his contract with the club, this was a fairly disheartening end to the season. A massive turnaround is needed at the start of next season for Gianni. The expectations on him are low, as it stands, which could lend to an easy regain of confidence once the season starts if he can find the form that he had at the beginning of 2023.
While there was some consternation at Salter’s performances up top this season, I think some perspective is needed to contextualize what we got from the striker. His 7 goals in the league were equivalent to the production we got from Brian Wright last season, so we weren’t missing anything that we had up top in 2022. That said, we still expected an improvement over what we got from the striker position, and we didn’t get it. Be it in production or in performance, Salter did not live up to the expectations that were set for him, and for a moment looked like he would falter completely. That he didn’t and was able to contribute in key moments after a very rough start speaks to what I think we can get from him in 2024, but there needs to be a clinical edge to his game. Too much of what we saw in 2023 was wasted opportunities in critical positions and moments, and that can’t continue if this team wants to succeed.
Ruben Del Campo:
While one could use the word wasted to describe Ruben Del Campo’s half-season in Ottawa, I’ll choose to air on the side of optimism for a player who was tremendously unlucky in the stretch run. The same may be said of Salter as well, but I think it’s especially true in Ruben’s case that he was not getting the required service to have the types of chances that Salter both converted and did not convert over the course of the season. That Ruben also hit the crossbar multiple times with outstanding efforts should not go unmentioned, nor should his wonderful cross to Diego Espejo from the 3-3 draw against York. These things can all exist in the same world as the frustration that comes with a striker making the amount of appearances Ruben did without scoring a goal. More is needed from him if this team stands any chance of improving in 2024, regardless if Salter’s production continues or not.
Conclusion and Gaps:
With these 7 players, the closest we have to guarantees at this time, the block of Swiss cheese that ATO represents is more hole than dairy. No goalkeepers, no right-sided players, and, just as it was last year, no defensive midfielder. These issues may end up getting addressed fairly quickly with the contract options on the table, but the outlook is not ideal with all of the loans and contracts set to expire completely. This will be the third major rebuild of this team in the last three years, and while a lack of continuity is certainly to be expected at this level, the ability to foster a team is severely hampered by this lofty personnel shuffle. I, of course, expect more than just 7 returnees from 2023, but if things fall through, as they always seem to do in this crazy game, there’s a lot of work to be done to flesh out a competitive roster. With rumors abound that Carlos Gonzalez is set to return for a 3rd season at the helm, will the rebuild harken back to the magic of 2022, or has the course for this ship already been set for disaster?
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.