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Atlético Ottawa held to draw at home by Cavalry FC

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An unfortunate 90th minute Kris Twardek own goal cost Atlético Ottawa two points as the capital city club drew their Canadian Premier League game 1-1 versus Cavalry FC Saturday.

Ottawa was mere minutes away from opening the new 2024 CPL season with back-to-back wins in their 100th competitive match in all competitions.

But the Atlético players, coaches, and all 4,569 fans will have left TD Place disappointed having not come away with all three points. 

A ‘tactical chess match’

Cavalry Head Coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. thought the match was a tactical chess match and felt his team played well enough to deserve a point.

“Really good game. I think the first half was quite even, both teams were sensing each other out and generating a handful of chances,” Wheeldon Jr. said. “Once they took the lead, they dropped back and were tough to break down. But we persisted for the equalizer offensively and I think at the end of the day, (a point) was the least we deserved,” Wheeldon Jr. said.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s goalscorer, center-back Amer Didic labeled the result as disappointing. 

“We played well against a tough team like Cavalry, who competes for the title every year,” Didic said. “To be able to get a lead on them was huge, but it kind of felt different after (conceding). We sat back a little bit more and absorbed pressure … I think we did well defensively for the most part, and the deflection off Kris’ leg was unfortunate. It stings.” 

Ottawa Head Coach Carlos Gonzalez said the players echoed Didic’s emotions and were frustrated when he entered the locker room after the match.

“They are not happy with the point, they have the feeling that we lost the game, and I think that’s a very important and positive thing because it shows that we have winners in the locker room and that we have guys with a lot of personality, (who are) very ambitious,” Gonzalez said. 

However, Gonzalez chose to focus on the positives.

“The main positive thing is that we are a new team and we are matching the regular season champions last season,” Gonzalez said. “We have to show that we can create the synergies, the chemistry, and the idea that we play our best as a unit.”

Gonzalez also believes his team played a more complete and mistake-free game compared to their season-opener. 

“I think against York, we conceded too many counterattacks and scoring chances because of our individual mistakes. Today I saw a more solid team a team that conceded less and (the chances) we created were because we were doing the right things offensively.”

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However, Gonzalez admitted his team still has room to grow. 

“We acknowledge that we still have a lot of room for improvement so that we can maintain during 90 minutes how we want to play football, but we have to (remain) calm and think that although the result isn’t the one that we wanted, we played against an excellent opponent who was last year’s regular season champions,” Gonzalez said. “They have this chemistry that makes them maintain their identity throughout entire matches.”

A draw against top opposition is a good measuring stick, Gonzalez added.

A first half of little note

The first half was evenly matched and both teams had spells of sustained possession in the final third which resulted in a handful of scoring chances.

Ottawa controlled possession early and established a rhythm offensively in the opening 25 minutes using their quick passes and lethal counterattack. Atlético was effective on the counter, particularly down the left flank, and created numerous scoring chances, as a result of Tabla’s elite speed, dribbling, and ball-control skills.

Cavalry FC was the better team in the latter 20 minutes of the first half, pressing for the opening goal. They used their strong man-to-man press to force Ottawa to turn the ball over several times, attacked Ottawa in transition, and moved the ball well in Ottawa’s final third to find openings in Ottawa’s defense to generate quality chances.

At halftime, Cavalry had a slight edge in possession 53-47 percent and outshot Ottawa 5-2 (2-1 on target). Cavalry created higher percentage chances, winning the expected goal (xG) battle 0.58 – 0.19. Cavalry spent more time in the attacking half than Ottawa. Cavalry had 14 final third entries to Ottawa’s eight. Cavalry completed 110 of 132 passes in the attacking half and 41 of 54 passes in the final third compared to Ottawa who completed 58 of 87 and only 15 of 34 passes, respectively.

Atlético Ottawa take lead early in second half

Ottawa came out of the dressing room playing on the front foot and immediately began pressing for the lead. They were quickly rewarded.

Less than three minutes in, Didic lept high above two Cavalry defenders to fiercely head home an Ollie Bassett corner which gave Ottawa a 1-0 lead in the 47th minute.

Atlético Ottawa (red) draw 1-1 against Cavalry FC in their 2024 Canadian Premier League match in Ottawa Saturday, April 20, 2024. Photo: Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography

Amer Didic celebrates his first goal of the 2024 CPL season, which gave Ottawa a 1-0 lead early in the second half. Photo: Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography.

Of Ottawa’s three goals this season, two –Didic’s today and Ottawa’s first goal against York– were direct results of set pieces. Gonzalez emphasized the importance of set pieces, especially to help change a match’s complexion. 

“I think it’s crucial to have many tools and strategies to break open games and to have many different solutions to score and create chances,” Gonzalez said. “Set pieces are an important aspect of modern football, from a set piece you can completely change the dynamic of a game, especially when teams are strong defensively and harder to break down, like Cavalry today.”

Didic was phenomenal all game, leading the line from the back while also providing an aerial threat during set pieces in the attacking phase. In addition to scoring Ottawa’s only goal, Didic led both teams in aerial duels won (7), total passes (55), and interceptions (3).

After the goal, Ottawa reverted to a back-five to defend their lead, which Gonzalez would do often with the lead in Atlético’s title-winning campaign in 2022. 

Atlético Ottawa turn defensive, eventually concede

Gonzalez said he switched to a back-five because he felt that Cavalry was creating numerous quality scoring chances down both flanks. Gonzalez initially tried to solve the issue by dropping Aboubacar Sissoko deeper defensively and moving Basset around, but it proved ineffective.

“In certain moments, we were losing petrol and still they were creating those superiorities in the wide areas so we felt that was the moment to switch to a more fixed structure so that we could control those intervals and those superiorities in the flanks better,” Gonzalez said. 

However, by dropping back into a defensive 5-4-1 shell, Ottawa invited immense amounts of pressure from Cavalry FC’s dangerous attack and opened up spaces for Cavalry’s talented wingers to accurately cross the ball into Ottawa’s box, which created havoc for Ottawa defensively and numerous quality scoring chances. It eventually hurt Ottawa.

Wheeldon Jr. complimented Gonzalez’s defensive tactics with the lead.

“I think Carlos is a terrific coach. He’s got a really good way of trying to shut out a game defensively after taking the lead,” Wheeldon Jr. said. “ They ended up winning the league the year before last by doing that and I think that’s what he was trying to do today; protect what they had versus go for another, but they almost got another to be fair.”

“But sometimes you need that little bit of luck to stay in the game and we might have been punched but we weren’t knocked out; I think that’s what kept us going and motivated,” Wheeldon Jr. added. “After we scored, we just kept attacking. I fancied us to win, but we just ran out of time.”

Ottawa’s defense held strong for most of the second half but collapsed in the dying embers of the match.

Didic explained the equalizer came in from a cross into the box, which Cavalry had been doing for the last half hour, and it took an unfortunate deflection of Twardek’s foot before going in. Didic added that Twardek has played well so far for Ottawa, this is just a mistake to learn from.

Atlético Ottawa (red) draw 1-1 against Cavalry FC in their 2024 Canadian Premier League match in Ottawa Saturday, April 20, 2024. Photo: Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography

“We’re building into something special, but it’s not where we want to be right now, for sure. Every week it’ll get better and the more games that we play the better we’ll become,” Didic said when asked about the development of the defensive backline and the team as a whole. “There’s a bunch of new guys on the team, there’s a lot of quality on the team as well, it’s a step-by-step process, a week-by-week process, and this is just another step in the right direction.” 

Atlético Ottawa’s starting 11 posing for a pre-match photo before kickoff vs Cavalry. Every day, they continue to improve to achieve their goal of winning a CPL title. Photo: Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography

What makes the Cavalry’s goal hurt worse is not even two minutes before, Atlético had a glorious chance on the counterattack in the 88th minute to extend their lead to 2-0 and secure all three points but Maxime Tissot’s shot struck the post. 

Next up for Atlético Ottawa, is a trip to Halifax to take on the seventh-place, winless Wanderers next Saturday at 1 p.m. EST.

Next up for Cavalry, is a home game against top-of-the-table, undefeated Vancouver FC in the preliminary round of the Canadian Championship next Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST.

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