By Ben Ralph
Following an extended courtship through the beginning of the off-season, Atlético Ottawa’s first signing for 2024 was local product Matteo de Brienne, who had spent his previous two seasons with Valour FC, establishing himself as arguably their most promising asset. Leaving on a free transfer as the Canadian Premier League’s U-21 Young Player of the year, de Brienne appeared both a no-brainer and a coup. But de Brienne, as it turns out, has already made his first contribution to Atlético Ottawa, and it comes as an off-the-pitch assist. Atléti’s newest signing said de Brienne has already played a part in making the move comfortable.
“[Matteo] is a super, super guy. I know his family well, so it's good to have him around me again this year. We spoke a little bit during the offseason. I think his move was way more natural, him being a free agent, it made it way easier… But yeah, we always kept in touch and he knows the city a bit well, so it's more in that area that he helped me,” Ottawa’s most recent signing admitted.
de Brienne will not be the only major asset Atlético Ottawa will be snatching from Winnipeg this offseason. Four signings after de Brienne, in an offseason of exciting and yet somehow predictable business, Atlético Ottawa have thrown us the first true curveball, and it comes in the colossal frame of Valour FC goalkeeper Rayane Yesli, one of last year's Golden Glove nominees.
“It's a really special day for me. It's my second professional club in Canada, so it's for sure a big opportunity for me, especially in the capital. I feel really happy to be here,” Yesli said.
At 6’7’’ and 24 years old, the former Montreal Carabin keeper comes to the nation's capital off the back of a monumental personal season. Across 22 games, the shotstopper made a league leading 81 saves, keeping seven clean sheets in the process. The fact that it wasn’t enough to stop Valour from sliding to an unceremonious last place finish last season suggests the keepers' motivations to turn his eyes elsewhere. Yesli explained how his mentality has always been to win games, and in Atlético Ottawa he found his perfect match. Add to the mix some good memories of the club from his last season, a thriving French-Canadian contingent both in the squad and in the city, and Yesli said Atlético Ottawa was the easy decision.
“It's really tough to score and to win a game here in Ottawa. Every time you come here, it's not going to be an easy game. It's hard… The first thing you notice is the amount of people that come to watch the games. You see that there's a good vibe in the stadium and yeah, you can definitely hear them during the game.”
To Yesli, the impact of the fans is something he said is evident even as he goes about his opening warmups. He said there’s a specific “vibe” at TD Place Stadium that he has been chasing ever since.
“I'm really excited, first of all, to get started. When you play in Ottawa, there's always a special feeling. It's hard to explain. There's a vibe around this team, around the stadium that is very different and I'm looking forward to being on the good side of it now.”
It almost doesn’t have to be said how interesting a transfer this is, though I will anyway. The club has been fairly by-the-book so far in its transfer policy, snapping up loans and free agents to build upon the three outfield pillars of attack, midfield and defense. Ballou rejoins the attack to bring back his trademark attacking flair alongside Kris Twardek. In the back line, Liberman Torres appears to be a crucial pickup for a threadbare central defensive core, while de Brienne offers the promise of pace out wide. Aboubacar Sissoko appears as if he will fill a more industrious role in a number of understaffed positions across the midfield. Sure, the positions of these players will fluctuate, but no doubt that if the season were to start tomorrow, these players would feature in some way.
But with Rayane Yesli, predictability goes out the window. Coming in on a 1 year+option deal, the Valour keeper was under contract in Winnipeg for a while longer. While Sam Salter was the first inter-league transfer with a fee, the club has been specific to say that this was an undisclosed transfer deal, suggesting that money isn't what is changing hands, and to date we only know Noah Verhoeven will be going on loan to Valour as part of the exchange. What more will be done is unknown. One must also wonder how his massive presence will squeeze into the goaltending plans of the nation's capital club. With club favourite Nathan Ingham extended until 2025, exactly what does the club have up its proverbial sleeve for the coming season?
As for the player? Yesli said he is excited to learn from All-State Nate and fight for his right to the number one spot.
“I've been in a situation where I was playing and someone else wasn't playing, and I can still learn from them. Everybody has something to bring to your development. Of course, he's a good keeper for sure, a good character in this team. So I'm looking forward to working with him.”
Yesli seems resolute about his position as Atlético Ottawa’s starting keeper, but the club's intentions still remain shrouded in uncertainty. Just over two months ago, CCSG’s very own Jon Hopkins wrote, “We need to temper expectations when it comes to our number two keeper. Having both Ingham and Melvin meant that we have spent the last two years with what could be two starting keepers for this level, and that simply isn’t likely to be the case.”
Well. Here we are. And it's obvious that Yesli himself isn’t preoccupied with the idea of being a backup, something he experienced in his early years at Valour FC. He says he’s a calm player and a smart person. In his spare time, he takes business courses. “I try to keep in touch with education by reading, by informing myself, by doing courses just to keep myself fresh-minded,” Yesli said. He explained that he strives for personal growth.
“Last year, I trained a lot. Right now in my career, I feel that it's a moment where I need to play. This is where I'm going to learn the most. Of course, training is important. You need to adjust some things in training, learn from a different coach. But the more that you play, the more that you're going to learn.”
Who will be between the sticks come the afternoon of April 13? Well, I think if you asked either keeper, they would say themselves. But only Coach CarGo has the final say on the matter. Stay tuned…
Ben Ralph is a die-hard football fan and a journalism student at Carleton. He has been supporting Everton through the ups and downs (but mostly the downs) and could not believe his luck when he stumbled across Atlético Ottawa in 2021. Now part of the Atleti faithful, his dream has always been to write football stories, and he is excited to join other fans as writers for CCSG. His football journalist idols are Adam Hurrey, James Richardson, and Charlie Eccleshare from The Football Cliches Podcast.