This wasn’t Atlético Ottawa’s first top-of-the-table clash of the season, but it felt different to the 2-1 win over Pacific in early June. In that game, Ottawa felt like hopeful underdogs.
But in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at TD Place with table-topping Cavalry FC – who are unbeaten in ten games – Atlético felt like contenders. Like equals. And sometimes, as they pushed a defensively solid Cavalry team right to the edge, it felt for the first time in the franchise’s history that they belong right here at the top of the Canadian Premier League.
Gorgeous Escalante free kick puts Cavalry FC ahead
Safe in the knowledge that Atlético Ottawa still have two visits to Cavalry in the second half of the season, it was clear from the start that the visitors would be happy with a draw here. Their one shot on target came after 20 minutes, a gorgeous José Escalante free-kick that left Nate Ingham with no chance.
Aside from authoritatively claiming a few crosses over the remaining 70 minutes, picking the ball out of the net was the Ottawa goalkeeper’s only action of the game. It was a disappointing goal to concede, particularly since the free kick was so unnecessary, coming from a misunderstanding between Zak Bahous and Abdoul Sissoko. The Malian midfielder had a rare off-day today, mislaying a couple of passes, committing a few needless fouls and looking generally slow to react.
With the hosts one-nil down to the league leaders and one of the league’s best defences, this was not only a test of character and ability, but a test of the coach’s tactical awareness. It was clear from the start that Atléti had deviated from their usual patient passing approach in favour of quicker, more direct passes. Ottawa’s manager Carlos Gonzalez explained the idea after the game.
“It was one of the things we worked on during the week,” said Gonzalez after the game “Playing against Cavalry you have to skip lines of pressure, if you play with near plays you’ll have trouble. So we were looking to be a little more vertical than usual and connect with those forward players so that we find the spaces that we wanted to attack.”
Also notable was a fierce high press, with Ottawa’s attacking players frequently winning the ball back in and around the Cavalry box.
These tactical tweaks led to several chances, but Cavalry were equal to the task. Maxim Tissot had a couple of dangerous crosses intercepted; Ballou Tabla tricked his way into shooting positions but found his shots blocked. It was a pulsating encounter that truly felt like a high-stakes contest – Ollie Bassett was typically brilliant and Tabla was constantly menacing for Ottawa, Mason Trafford and Kalifa Yao in the centre of the Cav’s defence were immense and felt at times like a brick wall in front of the goal, blocking and deflecting anything the home side could throw at them.
Tabla equalizes for hosts
Within minutes of the start of the second half, Ottawa were level with a beautifully worked goal. Miguel Acosta measured a long ball forward, which Bahous controlled with his chest while holding off Yao. Tabla flicked the dropping ball to Shaw, whose caressed touch opened up a rare inch of space in the Cav’s defence. With Yao and Daan Klomp flinging themselves into last-ditch blocks, Tabla finished with ruthless aplomb into the roof of the net.
It was a tremendous goal, and the contribution of Vladimir Moragrega should be acknowledged: the centre-forward dropped deep, leaving Trafford with the choice to go with him or maintain the defensive line. He started to follow before changing his mind, leaving a gap for Bahous to exploit with a clever run.
The final big chance of the game came after a prolonged period of Ottawa pressure. The home side moved the ball from side to side, searching for a shooting opportunity. It finally came to Carl Haworth after cutting inside Bradley Vliet. The winger unleash a pacey cross-shot that left the Cavs defence static. At the back post, both Malcom Shaw and the sub Zach Verhoven flung themselves at the fizzing ball, only for both to fail to make contact. The unfortunate Verhoven crashed into the post and had to be withdrawn.
‘Ambitious’ Atlético deserve league position
While Ottawa may rue failing to grab the three points here, they may have gained something much more valuable than points. Now, it is clear that these players are truly starting to believe that they belong here at the top of the CPL.
“They are ambitious, they have the correct mentality, a winner mentality. We are starting to trust ourselves and to create self-confidence,” said Gonzalez.
Add this new-found belief to a coach with real tactical nous, a reliably raucous home crowd and a squad with plenty of talent and you’ve got a recipe for something special here in the nation’s capital.