By Joey Huneault
It’s not often in football that two clubs play each other twice back-to-back. Yet, here we are in the first week of the 2023 CPL season, and Atlético Ottawa faced down HFX Wanderers not once but twice.
2 matches in 4 days brought us debuts and returns, anxiety and excitement, frustration and joy, and, most importantly, a return to normal as ATO is back in action. Without further ado, let's get into these matches.
The Home Opener: The Return of Pay What You Can
7 039 fans made the pilgrimage to the Glebe for Ottawa’s 3rd annual “Pay What You Can” home opener, an attendance count second only to the inaugural opening in the PWYC series. This year’s charity, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), is a wonderful organization and hospital here in the Nation’s Capital.
Another tradition that returned this year bigger and better than before was the Supporter’s March from Glebe Central Pub to TD Place. A large and audible contingent of fans from Capital City Supporters Group, other Supporter’s Groups, and other die-hard ATO fans took up their drums, flags, and smoke bombs and made their presence known.
While the game kicked off with an explosion of cheers, what followed was a ding-dong battle of missed shots and midfield back and forth. However, just as we rolled into the 16th minute Lorenzo Callegari took the ball off the feet of former Wanderer and Ottawa debutant Samuel Salter. Aiden Daniels received the ball and made a run for the net, sliding the ball off to an unmarked Zachary Fernandez. Fernandez found the back of the net and scored the first goal of the 2023 season and his first for the club.
After a series of hesitations and minor errors, Ottawa still trailed with mere seconds left in the first half. A floated longball from Luke Singh met the foot of Jean-Aniel Assi, who proceeded to make a smooth sideways pass to CCSG Golden scarf winner and midfielder Ollie Bassett. The 2022 Player of the Year put in a single touch on the ball and fed it past defenders and the keeper to draw the game 1-1 with one of the last touches of the half.
The second half, much like the first, saw two teams cautious about taking the initiative. The most significant change in the second half wasn’t a substitution or crowd-shattering goal. Instead, fans of both clubs were subjected to a refereeing performance that could only be described as “disappointing”. Michael Venne, one of the more promising young referees in the CPL, made several mistakes that noticeably changed the course of the game. Most notably, soon after Defender Karl Ouimette entered the match for Ottleti, he placed a shot from the edge of the box that was blocked by the extended hand of HFX fullback Ryan James. Despite being 10 yards away, Venne signaled to play on to the chagrin of the Dub.
When the final whistle blew, both teams were left feeling unfulfilled. Sub-par refereeing, plenty of missed shots, and general early-season rustiness resulted in two teams frustrated that they were going home with a single point apiece.
The Wheels on the Bus: Can Champ at York Lions Stadium
4 days later, and both teams were at it again. Over 50 ATO fans piled in
to a coach bus and drove the 4-hour, 27-minute route from TD Place to York Lion Stadium for a neutral venue first-round game in the Canadian Championship.
Ottawa once again opened the match on the back foot, facing pressure from HFX that kept them deep in their own third for the first 20 minutes of the match, made worse by the untimely early departure of Ollie Bassett after only 15 minutes. Not long after, HFX was awarded a free-kick at the top of Ottawa’s box. Massimo Ferrin, put his foot through the ball, and while Ingham was able to get a few fingers on the ball, it found its way into the back of the net. For the second time in a week, ATO was a goal behind HFX early in a match.
A tense 20 minutes followed, one that saw Ottleti fall back into old patterns of soaking up pressure and waiting for a moment. Then, a long ball from Ouimette found the feet of winger Gianni dos Santos, who calmly played around Nimick and crossed into the box. In front of his parents and the Dub, Ottawa’s new all-time appearance leader Malcom Shaw headed the ball into the net and equalized.
No more than 3 minutes later, before the fans could even calm down from Shaw’s goal, Noah Verhoeven crossed the ball into the HFX box, where Ouimette headed a ball against the post, which landed perfectly for Spanish wonderkid Diego Espejo, who scored his first professional goal and gave Ottawa a much deserved 2-1 lead at the end of the first half.
Unlike the previous game, the refereeing was not the focus of the second half. Myriam Marcotte showed her veteran international refereeing experience as she kept a fair and clean game. Playing back into CarGoBall Classic, ATO shifted around to allow for more defensive plays and played to hold HFX back. But that didn’t stop Verhoeven from linking a ball to Assi in the 83’, who managed to run from Ottawa’s defensive third all the way to Halifax’s 18-yard box, where his pass evaded the hands of keeper Yann Fillion, and landed onto the foot of Captain Max Tissot. The team immediately ran over to celebrate with the Dub on the Road, with Assi securing his second assist in as many appearances in stripes.
After a spirited push from the Wanderers for the final 5 minutes plus, the final whistle sounded, signaling the first-ever Voyageurs Cup win for the Rojiblancos and one they earned in style.
Reflexions on Week 1
A few themes followed the games between Ottawa and Halifax. The most noticeable was a change in how ATO Head Coach Carlos González arranged his lineups. Salter and Antinoro had subpar first games for Ottawa, which immediately saw them both on the bench the following game. However, this had a positive effect on the younger of the two, who stepped up to cover for Ollie Bassett when an injury sidelined him.
The atmosphere and noise from the Supporters were like never before, and the Ottawa fans used their voices to send a message to Canada Soccer while at the Canadian Championship match. Protest signs and purple armbands (and headbands) filled the traveling Dub as the Ottawa fans showed their displeasure with the national body. Football cannot grow without respect and support for everyone, regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender or gender identity, neurotypicality, or ability. Thus far, Canada has failed to provide for those basic needs in most categories.
Atlético Ottawa next plays Valour FC at IG Field. Kick-off is April 22nd at 7 pm EST. If you’re in Ottawa or the Ottawa area, come to Glebe Central Pub for the first CCSG Viewing Party of the season at our Official Pub and the only Temple of Football in Ottawa.