By Patrick Gibson
Photo Credits: Phil Larivière
Another game against Cavs, another game we managed to scrape by. Don’t get me wrong, the adrenaline I felt after the win was through the roof. To be able to claim a 5th consecutive victory at TD Place when we only managed to win that amount in the whole of 2022 is joyous. That said, plenty of moments in this game could have swung it further in either direction. Some of those chances were repelled by truly fantastic defensive work, while others were owed to a fair bit of fortune. Regardless, the return of the 4 natural centre-back formation brought home another 3 points, almost certainly helped by having a natural defensive midfielder in front of them this time. That said, it did take some 2022-style heroics from Nathan Ingham at points to ensure that the clean sheet was kept. It was far from our best game, but there’s still a fair few positives to take. On to the rankings:
#18 Samuel Salter
(7.5): At this point, it's very clear to see that Sam Salter has separated himself from the rest of those at the head of the formation. He’s settled into the lone striker role quite well and gets the positional requirements of the system. He’s able to balance the necessity of making runs in behind the defence to get on the end of passes from the wingers when provided, as exemplified beautifully on the goal, with the importance of working deep to retain possession when necessary and provide pressure to the opposing defence off the ball. There was a moment in the first game against Cavalry this season where it looked like that third element was missing from his game; now that he’s truly up to form, he’s becoming a far more complete forward than I thought he could be. Not to mention he’s finally starting to find ways to win aerial duels, something many fans lamented his inability to do early in the season, given his size. It’s one of those cases where I’m so glad I was wrong, and he’s established himself in my eyes as the clear number 1 at number 9.
#99 Ruben Del Campo
(6.9): Take everything I just said about Sam Salter, and it can be applied to a lesser extent to Ruben Del Campo. He does much of the same as Sam out on the pitch, though it’s clear to see that the lack of time with the team means he still has to settle in completely before he can see the final results. I was certain he was set to score when he sprung free in the 85th minute, but unfortunately, he hit the ball directly at Marco Carducci before wasting the second opportunity wide on his weaker right foot. While Salter has the ability to get in behind, Del Campo has more pace, and once he can get just one goal, his instincts and mentality to get towards goal will get the boulder rolling. There are a lot of caveats to this, but I do believe he can come good, more so than the other international strikers we’ve fielded.
#19 Malcolm Shaw
(6): Given what’s been shown from the other strikers these past couple of weeks, it’s unfortunate that Malcolm has fallen down the pecking order in that role. We’re mostly seeing him be shifted to the wings to provide cover for players that aren’t available to be selected. That said, early in his shift, he seemed to be playing in a natural striker role and not down the wing, which allowed Cavalry to overload down our left flank with Ali Musse and the newly signed William Akio coming on for Fraser Aird. After our second set of changes, Malcolm was pushed out to the right and had a bit more success there, defending well enough late on, but still fell victim to his one silly foul per game. At this point, I still think Malcolm will get time up top, as Carlos Gonzalez does rotate his strikers fairly regularly, but he needs to take those opportunities and run with them as his fellow strikers are rounding into form, and their skill sets fit the game plan that ATO is running with right now.
#7 Gianni dos Santos
(NR): Only coming in for the 2nd half injury time, it’s clear that Gianni dos Santos is on a minutes restriction to be able to get back to full fitness. That said, he did have a nice run in behind the defence before unfortunately missing the net after managing to navigate the Cavalry back line. That he was called offside is irrelevant, as it’s somewhat emblematic of the season that he’s had. The final product hasn’t materialized as much as it should, and once he gets back to full health, he hopes the trend does not continue.
#16 Zach Verhoven
(7.3): It’d be a tad hyperbolic to say that the assist from Zach Verhoven was anywhere close to the assist Messi delivered to Nahuel Molina in the 2022 World Cup, but I did think of that moment when it happened. It was the type of ball that this team tries quite rarely and has never really come off before. If this team is to make the leap into a truly effective offensive side, it’s this idea to play through the lines and somewhat diagonal runs now that we have strikers with the pace to beat defenders in these situations. In addition to the assist, Zach probably had his most complete start of the season, defending well in tandem with Niba against a difficult-to-handle Cavalry right side of Ali Musse and Fraser Aird. While it doesn’t show up as much on the stat sheet, as he went 0-4 in-ground duels, I do think Zach’s game passed the eye test. Knowing how our left side looks right now, this type of start will be key in the 6-point contests we have coming up in hopes of qualifying for the playoffs.
#10 Ollie Bassett
(6.8): While Ollie’s performance was an improvement over last week, it would’ve been hard not to, in all honesty. He did manage to generate more positive play going forward, with 5 passes into the final third, still nowhere near his heights this season but given how much we were playing on the back foot, it stands to reason that this would be the case. Still, with 2 chances created and 82% pass accuracy, Ollie isn’t quite up to the standard he has set for himself but has gotten back to a decent enough level to where the team can still function. I also think Ollie was hard done by on some counter-attacking instances where he made good runs but wasn’t given the ball in a position to score. He’s not at MVP level right now, and for this team to be running at its absolute best, he needs to get back there. That said if we’re still managing to win games before he gets back to that point, all the better.
#11 Noah Verhoeven
(6.6): Once again, Noah Verhoeven provided a performance that was good enough. He continued his streak of being a low-activity player, registering only 13 total passes in his 82 minutes on the pitch but providing good outlets to defenders when needed and working tirelessly through the middle of the pitch off the ball. His defensive work was the highlight of this game, making 4 tackles and 4 clearances, though he was dribbled past an equal amount of times. 4 of 10 ground duels is also not exactly where we want our midfielders to be, but the other effective defense metrics make up for some of the subpar elements that present themselves. I’ll always appreciate having Noah in the midfield because he is left-footed. Having a balance of players with a different preferred foot is key to being able to avoid getting trapped by an effective press. I’ll also almost always harp on a low-activity player like Noah, but given the system and the pressure put on by the Cavalry attack, I really shouldn’t give him too much flack.
#30 Gabriel Antinoro
(NR): Gabi turned in a pretty solid 8-minute shift, largely doing what I’ve expected of him, particularly late in games. His ability to see the pitch and make the right run is what will get him far in his career and is the main reason I’m so excited about him right now. His final product may still need some fine-tuning, but it’s to be expected of a 19-year-old in his first professional season. The one thing I will complain about isn’t related to his play, but with the confusion that didn’t allow him and Ilias Iliadis to be substituted for about 10 minutes. With a number of stoppages in play from when the substitution was initially attempted, the officials did not let Atletico make the change and, from my view from the stands, made him visibly angry. I’m still confused as to why the substitution wasn’t permitted to be completed, but it’s surely something we’ll never know.
#14 Jean-Aniel Assi
(7.3): I genuinely believe the only thing Jean-Aniel Assi is missing is a killer instinct. At this stage, he’s squandered a fair few chances for Atletico Ottawa this season, though if that weren’t the case, I’m not sure he’d be playing here. The rest of his game has developed very well this season, particularly on the defensive end, where against Cavalry, he made 3 tackles and won more than 50% of his ground duels. His interplay with Ollie Bassett was hit-and-miss in this game as well, as he did manage to find a couple of incisive passes to the midfielder but also shrugged him off when Ollie made overlapping runs down the wing into space. That circles back to the killer instinct comment, if only because that would make him more decisive. I still feel he takes a bit too much time on the ball in transition situations, especially when this is a team whose best offensive quality is capitalizing on breaks rather than being able to break down a defence from possession.
#21 Alberto Zapater
(7.9): Not much more needs to be said about Alberto Zapater. Once again, he managed to hold down the fort from his anchor role in the midfield and had a ton of success in calming play down and being the outlet for his defenders when faced with a fierce Cavalry press. 7/8 on ground duels, 2 of 2 aerial duels, and 3 interceptions on top of his 4 tackles is a truly quality performance from any player, let alone the man that has established himself as the most crucial to Atletico Ottawa’s recent renaissance. That he could also provide 84% pass accuracy and 8 passes into the final third shows that he’s as effective with the ball as without. All we need from him now is a goal contribution. Otherwise, you cannot ask more of any player. He’s exactly what we needed, and it’s great to see management go out and address the team’s issues when afforded the opportunity.
#96 Ilias Iliadis
(NR): The debut for Ilias came a little later than I assume Carlos Gonzalez wanted, but he effectively fulfilled his defensive duties through the 15 or so minutes that he played. Time will tell if he can step into a more attacking role or if he will be used to essentially just fill out minutes and rotate. I hope we can see more of him if only to continue building an effective relationship with CF Montreal to facilitate more loan players and potentially grant our own signings an opportunity.
#3 Niba MacDonald
(8.1): Dealing with Ali Musse, who’s been an absolute marvel for Cavalry this season, would be a tough task no matter the personnel available. That said, Niba was more than up to the task, really only being left in the dust once during his full ninety minutes on the pitch. Otherwise, he was incredibly stout in defence, not allowing the fearsome Cavalry right side to do much of anything, especially once William Akio came onto the pitch. While his defence will be rightly heralded, he also had his best game going forward, being a valuable assistant to Zach Verhoven down the left side. Not only in his ability to win headers but also to distribute, as he managed to go 4 of 5 on long balls with 11 of his 30 passes towards the final third, and dribble, as he took on his opposite numbers on a couple of occasions. While these dribbles weren’t the stuff of magic, they brought a dynamic that may not be expected from a side fielding four natural centre-backs in a back four.
#5 Luke Singh
(6.9): Nothing from Luke Singh was especially egregious defensively against Cavalry, and that’s really the number one thing to ask for from a centre-back. He didn’t really allow anyone to get past him, and he held his own in the air, winning his only aerial duel of the match. That he didn’t win any of his three ground duels is a bit concerning, but his multiple interceptions even that out. Offensively, he wasn’t his usual self. His distribution on long balls was only 2 of 8, much lower than his season average, and save for a lovely shot where he wrapped his foot around the ball well, forcing a save from Carducci where he spilled the ball, he wasn’t as involved as he usually is from a defence in making runs forward. That is mostly explained by him being a part of a back four as one of the two central defenders, limiting the amount that he can get away with in that aspect. Still, an effective game from an effective defender, more of these with the type of keeping performance from Sunday, will no doubt provide further clean sheets.
#4 Diego Espejo
(7.1): Save for a spectacular sliding challenge to halt a Cavalry break in the second half, Diego’s performance mirrored Luke’s in that it was extremely solid but not quite transformative in any way. That he was able to find and win more duels than Luke across the 90 is the reason for the difference in score, 3 of 3 in the air and 2 of 4 on the ground, but otherwise, I will not complain if this is the look we get from the team going forward in a back 4. Offensively, his shot was directed off-target, but he provided more accurate long passes than his partner in defense. In even better news, one more game without a booking will see a yellow card taken away from Diego in terms of suspension potential, giving him a bit more license to be aggressive and avoid missing a potential second game of the season due to suspension. Given the issues we’ve had with the rotation this year, not losing players out to card accumulation will be key in the second half, as it is for every team.
#20 Karl Ouimette
(7.1): At times in this game, Karl Ouimette showed that he still has a giveaway or two in him when in possession. That said, those times were fewer and farther between and took place in far less dangerous positions than had been in the past. His passing was alright for the role he was tasked with on Saturday, as he only managed to complete 75% of his passes, but he still managed to complete more than half of his long balls. Defensively though, he was extremely effective. 2 tackles, 4 clearances, and an interception facing down a tricky left-sided attack from Cavalry is no small feat. That he also managed to go even on-ground duels and draw 3 fouls, thereby killing the potential Cavalry advances, only helps to solidify his place in the team further. We all expected him to feature as a centre-back this season, but that Karl has been such a solid hand at right-back is truly a treat. The absence of Miguel Acosta is a question mark, but we’re in good hands even if he’s not fully fit for a little bit with the displays from fullback we saw today.
#29 Nathan Ingham
(8): The Nathan Ingham that stole a fair few points last season has finally returned. 5 saves on the day, with a couple of excellent ones on chances near the 6-yard box, is more than what you can ask for from a goalkeeper. No one would’ve blamed him if Ethan Beckford’s shot that careened off the crossbar had found the back of the net, but it didn’t, allowing Nate to claim the clean sheet that he very much earned. Even in managing his box and coming for the ball on set pieces, Ingham was clearly more confident in his decision-making, which is essential to any keeper finding his rhythm. That his distribution on the day was better than it has been this season is a cherry on top of a truly stellar performance in goal and one that will hopefully be replicated many times in the back half of this season.
It’s been three years, and we still manage, again and again, to have Calvary’s number, no matter the form they’re in. That they’ve lost twice in their last 7 games, and both have been to us, is enough to bring a chuckle to any ATO fan. 5 straight home wins after a 9 game-winless streak is the wild swing that the game of football brings to its most passionate supporters. The best part about it is that the emotion still poured out of the players as the final whistle blew. Hard-fought wins like this should be celebrated for what they are. That the players and fans connect in the way that we have only helps to serve to build a culture in the city for this sport. The excitement of every single member of Section W is palpable, and the shared passion grows week to week. If I ever become jaded enough not to have adrenaline coursing through my body after a victory, I’ll know then that it’s time for me to step away from loving this game.
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.