By Eddie Benhin
I know what you are thinking: “Oh wow, another two players that will train with the team for a bit before never stepping foot on the field for a regular season game.” While ATO’s draft history proves this sentiment, I believe this may be the year where we see at least one of our draft picks make the team and have some impact. Let’s review them.
This season, Ottawa drafted Carleton University Centre Mid Luca Piccioli and Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières left-back Samuel Laplante. Let’s start with Luca Piccioli. Before I begin my own analysis, here’s what head coach Carlos Gonzalez had to say:
"We are happy with the two choices we have made; both are players from an age group that has been somewhat neglected in the past, but very valuable thanks to the new CPL regulations," said Carlos González, Head Coach, Atlético Ottawa. "We believe in this profile of young players with great room for improvement but at the same time with previous experience at this level. In the case of Luca, we have seen him over the past two seasons participating sporadically with us in training, and he has shown great development this season, knocking on the door to become a member of this squad. In the case of Samuel, building on his previous experience with Valour, we have identified him as a left-sided player with certain characteristics that are hard to find today in the Canadian scene. We see that with some further development, he has the potential to be an interesting player."
Luca has been a player that’s been on my and many other USport followers' radars. This 24-year-old has been a dominating presence in the Carleton midfield over the past few years, and this past season, USports saw Piccioli take his game to another level. Piccioli finished with 9 goals and 4 assists from 11 matches played, including a handful of screamers - one that came in the OUA finals in front of many ATO fans. However, Piccioli’s offense isn’t what makes his game exciting. Piccioli is a physically dominating player in the midfield. He knows how to time his tackles and isn’t afraid to get in the dirty areas. When he’s on the ball, his patience and vision are at a level that separates him from other U-Sports athletes.
Now, can all of this translate into the professional game? Frankly, I don’t know. Piccioli is 24; he’s physically mature enough to compete with other CPL athletes. However, offensively, I can’t say whether his game will translate into the required Premier League level. His offensive skills that I mentioned are definitely above U-Sports level, but I’ll be very curious to see whether he can remain the same player with Atletico Ottawa. Josh from The Stepover Podcast seems to think so:
Overall, I like this draft pick. Piccioli is yet another Carleton Draft pick, which not only further enhances the pipeline between one of the Nation’s top programs and ATO but also gives us the chance to sign another local player who has been at the top of most fans' wishlists this offseason. Piccioli enters this draft as a center mid, meaning currently, he sits behind Zapater, Bassett, and Verhoven in that position. Can he impress enough in the pre-season to grant himself a chance? We’ll have to see, but this is definitely a fantastic draft pick by Atletico Ottawa, even if this doesn’t work out.
Laplante is no stranger to being drafted. Last season, Laplante was drafted in the 2nd round by Valour FC. He didn’t end up signing, and I can already hear the more pessimistic ATO fans saying, “Well if he couldn’t sign with Valour, how is he going to sign with us?”. Well, one more year of University development can go a long way. Laplante started all 12 games for the RSEQ Champions UQTR. Laplante is a left-back - which so happens to be a position that needs filling for Ottawa.
Laplante is also 24 years old, which means, on one hand, there is no added U-21 bonus in signing him. However, because he is 24, I expect him to compete in the CPL physically. Playing in RSEQ and growing up in the Quebec system means that he’s been around the physical game for a while. UQTR was a very strong team this season and fell to the eventual National Champions Cape Breton on Penalties.
Laplante is a left-footed left-back, which could be a very big asset for Ottawa. Last season, Ottawa had very few options at the left-back position, so this pick could turn out to be a steal. Now, similarly to Piccioli, I’m curious to see whether his defensive play can translate into the professional game. I am a little bit more optimistic about Laplante because he came from RSEQ and Quebec, but nevertheless, only time will tell whether he can make the jump or not.
A new Draft approach:
In previous seasons, Ottawa took big gambles on young prospects who - let’s face it, didn’t have much chance of cracking the roster. In the meantime, Ottawa also created the development system that got these young players training in the club regardless. With this dev system created, Ottawa decided to change tactics when it came to the draft. Where most teams would try and pickup U21 players to help with their quota, this season, Ottawa decided to focus on two 24-year-olds. Taking 24-year-olds means that Ottawa is looking for them to earn a roster spot right away. This isn’t a long-term project, this is a pre-season or bust project. I like that. So far, the U-Sports draft has been utterly useless for Ottawa. Our development program will better enhance our prospects than any USports draft pick will. So instead, focus on players who are physically and mentally more mature and who have a better chance of cracking a roster now. For once, I am completely assured that Ottawa focused on the draft this year and drew up a plan that aims to benefit the 2024 roster directly. Of course, this isn’t to say that all older U-Sports players are going to have a good chance of cracking the roster, but if this is the new strategy for Ottawa, I think in the next couple of years, we will draft a star that makes an immediate impact with the club. Who knows, maybe we already drafted that star this year.
When Eddie isn't stirring the pot on Twitter, you can find him with the megaphone at Atletico Ottawa gamedays. Eddie is also one of the co-hosts of the Hotstove and was the third-ever member of CCSG and 3rd-ever season seat holder (He made me add this and is currently flexing his muscles in front of me). He loves talking ball and is always ready for a conversation about the beautiful game.