The Finalists: Zach Verhoven
There have been a decent amount of intra-league transfers added to this Atlético Ottawa squad over the past two seasons (one of them is another finalist for this award), but unlike proven talents like Ben Fisk and Ryan Telfer, Zach Verhoven came here with the air of a player with something to prove still. You can tell because he plays like it every second that he’s on the pitch.
“Explosive” I think was the word I used for him during an episode of the After the Whistle podcast with Thomas Stockting. Zach continuously refuses to be a passenger when he’s on the pitch. Every possession is treated like an opportunity to leave his mark on the game, on the pitch, on the fans. Every dribble, every feint, every give-and-go is determination manifest. Whether he’s playing Right-Back or Right-Wing is mostly trivial because he’s bombing up and down the entire right flank regardless; tracking back to recover possession, over/underlapping another player with a one-two, taking on defenders for fun. When he starts a match, he dictates how the right flank operates. When he’s used as a super-sub, he dictates how the rest of the team operates.
One of the best examples of Verhoven’s sheer grit and intelligence on the pitch was in the 1-1 home draw against York United on August 18. We had fallen 1-0 to an extremely weak penalty in the 65th minute. A situation like this can be deflating. Heads can drop, and depending on your mentality or motivation, a player might find it difficult to dig deep to get back out from under it. Enter Zach Verhoven in the 75th minute. In the 15 minutes he was on the pitch he was a marvel. 7 Accurate passes, all in the opposition half. 3 duels won. 3 successful tackles out of 3 attempted. The kid was on fire. In the 89th minute he made a piercing diagonal run towards the box where he ended up being dispossessed so swiftly that he spun and fell to his knees.
What happened next ended up being one of the highlights of the season. He ran back and, thanks to a stonewall put up by Milo Kapor against Álvaro Rivero, took the ball back as quickly as he had lost it before embarking on another journey towards the box. Head up, Telfer to his right, and Wright in front of him, he instead looked back and to the left where an open Alberto Soto was calling for the ball to his feet (as he so often does). Verhoven obliged him, not with a pass to his feet, but with an intelligent ball rolled towards Soto’s left so that he could run onto it into open space without taking a single touch before hitting a driving low strike first time into the bottom right corner.
We all remember the celebrations. Soto lifting his jersey to show his shirt underneath sharpie’d with a tribute to his late uncle. Dylon Powley sprinting to the dub and leaping up onto the railing to greet the fans in a moment that has become the stuff of legend. Soto running back to his half roaring and punching the air towards the fans to keep them on their feet. This was the moment we knew we could make TD place a fortress (we’d go nearly a month after this game before being defeated at home). This moment does not happen without resilience. This moment does not happen without courage. This moment does not happen without Zach Verhoven.