Chapter 5 Begins: 2024 Off-Season Review/Season Preview (Part 2)

Chapter 5 Begins: 2024 Off-Season Review/Season Preview (Part 2)

Last week, my focus was squarely on the off-season and the talking points that had occupied my mind as moves were made throughout the winter; now it’s time to drill down into the nitty gritty of what will happen in the coming season. There are plenty of questions that have sprung to my mind about Atlético Ottawa despite the club forming, in the eyes of some, the CanPL Galacticos. None are inherently more important than the other, and all need some examination to gauge a realistic level of expectation going forward. It’s very easy to be trapped by the excitement surrounding the premier free agents that were brought into the side for the 2024 campaign, and while I don’t want to rain on everyone’s parade, we must take a step back and realize that we can’t be planning one in April before the team has played a minute of competitive football. 

What is going on at right back?

This is a question that has plagued my mind since the announcement of Miguel Acosta’s departure in January. While Jonathan Grant looked to be the stopgap option, that came with a caveat of his injury history. That this came into play so early in pre-season was catastrophic, and a solution would have to be found elsewhere. In conjunction with that announcement came the revelation that Karl Ouimette would be retiring ahead of the 2024 season, further amplifying this selection issue at right back given he played the second most minutes at that position behind Miguel last season. 

All this is to say we have one natural right back on the roster, the newly re-signed Zachary Roy. His switch from number 46 to number 2 this season seems to suggest he will have an increased role on the field, but that may just be the traditionalist in me. While it would be nice to feature a u21-eligible Canadian in a starting role to assuage any concerns about meeting the minutes threshold from the get-go, the reality is that Roy has only played 491 minutes in all competitions over the two seasons he’s been with the club. And it’s not as if he’s been integrated more into the team as time has passed, as he only made 3 appearances last season for a total of 70 minutes. Compound that with his best performance being a start at right wing, and this solution isn’t immediately inspiring the type of confidence that the rest of the lineup does.

So, what are the alternatives? Well, the most obvious to me is that Carlos Gonzalez employs the same 3-at-the-back shape that he’s done frequently over the last two years, thereby eliminating the right back position altogether and splitting those duties between a wing back and the right side of a defensive three. If that were to be the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kris Twardek and Tyr Walker were the pieces that fit into the two positions I just mentioned. 

Of course, all this speculation was rendered moot by the lineup of the team against CS Saint-Laurent on Saturday. It was there that Kris Twardek featured as the out-and-out right back in a 4-1-4-1 formation, and looked a consummate professional in that role. His general length at the position offers him more room to win standing and sliding challenges that would otherwise be unattainable for players of smaller stature, and going forward it should be no surprise that a player best known for his skill and pace offered a significant threat down the byline. Overlapping with Ollie Bassett and Abou Sissoko, Twardek provided multiple dangerous crosses and it looks like that the position I thought we’d have the most questions about will instead be pretty settled going into the opening weeks of the season.

Pictured: Atletico Ottawa celebrating their 3rd goal in a 4-1 win against CS Saint-Laurent on Saturday. (Credit: Chris Hue, Atlético Ottawa)

Who gets to line up in attack?

As we move further up the pitch, we run into the opposite problem that we did at right back. There is a plethora of talent on offer for Carlos Gonzalez and the proper selection of that talent will be paramount to the team’s performance on the pitch. At the head of the formation, I would be shocked if Sam Salter did not begin the season as the lone striker ahead of Ruben Del Campo. While Del Campo did finally manage to score in pre-season, Salter’s return last year should have him written in sharpie as the number 9 pending any setbacks.

One would think that it would be similarly simple to figure out who would be starting on the left. Given his previous performances, it would be more shocking to me if Ballou Tabla wasn’t starting than any other player on the roster. Adding onto that, Carlos Gonzalez has played his left winger in an inverted role in most situations, meaning Ballou’s skillset is perfectly suited to create from a position that did not inspire the most joy last season. The one consideration I would propose is that Ballou started his time with Atletico Ottawa on the right side of the pitch and featured heavily as a second striker at other points in 2022. As tactical plans change, we could see reigning u21 player of the year Matteo De Brienne fill that hole as a more traditional winger down the left flank. This is also without mentioning the potential for Kevin dos Santos to rotate into the role behind Ballou with that same inverted mindset.

Of course, that’s without taking into account that dos Santos has been shown fairly frequently down the right side of the pitch in clips provided during the pre-season. While he has noted in the past that the left is his preferred side, the versatility of being able to play the former York man along either wing will allow the team to have players in their best roles as much as possible, namely Ballou down the left.

In the final bits of preparation before the season began, I ended up going two for four on the attacking front, however it must be stated the 4-3-3 I envisioned was positioned instead as a 4-1-4-1 with the wingers taking up a far deeper position. In turn, this morphed into a 4-2-4 while pressing, with Abou Sissoko coming through the middle as the second “pressing forward”. The press, which had not been terribly effective at creating opportunities in transition last year, looked to have far more life with the combination of Manny Aparicio and Abou Sissoko willing to come out of their positions in the midfield to create pressure alongside Sam Salter up top. With a bit more urgency from the striker in pressing situations, it feels like something that could create the types of errors that other CPL teams take advantage of consistently. 

The other thing I got wrong was that Ollie Bassett was not played through the middle of the park. His presence in that position at the end of 2023 was something I harped on heavily, but it’s something I began to think about more in the offseason. Ollie was taking the ball down the right wing regardless of where he was listed in the team sheet, and putting him in that position to begin with will allow our other high-caliber midfielders to come onto the pitch without any concern. Combine that with Kris Twardek providing a valuable presence down the by-line and there’s certainly upside to be able to create from crosses, a feature of the attacking play that was severely lacking last season. 

Where are the u21 minutes coming from?

The shift back to the approach of having veteran players through the line-up has meant that the u21 players in our lineup may not be thrust into the spotlight so frequently. The odds are the two defenders, Zach Roy and Tyr Walker, will be the more heavily involved given the lack of depth at their positions. Walker, not only for roster reasons, but also because he impressed in his limited minutes last season, particularly his two starts against Pacific and Valour in August which both saw ATO come away with victories. If Carlos Gonzalez is to play a back three to start the season, I’d think that Walker would feature on the right side of that line with Didic in the middle and Singh on the left through the early part of the year. This would be set in stone until Liberman Torres finally joins up with the team and becomes integrated into the tactical shape, if he’s to be featured as a centre back. We’ll also see, very early on, if Walker’s only appearances last season being away from home were a coincidence or evidence of something more concrete.

While the likely inclusion of Tyr Walker in the starting lineup will answer the question I posed, I do want to take the time to consider Gabriel Antinoro’s place for 2024. The numerous acquisitions in the midfield have made it far tougher to see how the young Brazilian-Canadian will play a major role. One would think that both Ollie Bassett and Manny Aparicio are nailed-on starters, with Abou Sissoko wanting to take on a more attacking role in the midfield and Liberman Torres’ previous time spent as a defensive midfielder, there’s plenty of cover for Alberto Zapater and it feels like Antinoro will be the odd one out in the centre of the park. He did appear for a brief cameo at the end of the team’s final friendly against CS Saint-Laurent, but that’s not indicative of him moving up on the depth chart whatsoever. His spirit and improvement just over the course of 2023 endeared him to myself and many others, and I guess this is just a way for me to hope that he gets a fair shake in 2024 to show what he’s truly capable of, especially because his time on the pitch still garners those precious u21 minutes. 

Pictured: Amer Didic with CEO Fernando Lopez upon reaching an agreement with Atlético Ottawa (Credit: Chris Hue, Atlético Ottawa)

Where does this team finish?

At the end of the day, this is the only question that matters. Everything I’ve just talked about does nothing more than feed into the thing on everyone’s mind, the result. I’ve gone on and on about how things can go right and how things can go wrong in these last two pieces, so instead of outlining the absolute worst-case scenarios, I’ll instead provide some actual analysis and predictions that can be held over my head for when I’m inevitably wrong. 

As it stands, Cavalry should be considered the clear favourites to claim their second consecutive regular season championship. They’ve not lost any of their key contributors and have supplemented some of their weaker areas to round out a truly terrifying side. 2nd through 7th is a crapshoot, but I do believe that ATO is the team best poised to claim 2nd place. This might not have been the case prior to the signing of Amer Didic, but his presence in the back is a big shift that gives me more confidence than any other signing we’ve made. 

As for other, more granular predictions, I think Salter and Del Campo combine for 15 goals this season. I have no idea what their individual numbers will be, but I think we will see our strikers put the ball in the net far more consistently this season because of the improved distribution around them. I also think we’ll finally manage to score 20 goals at home. A bold prediction sure, but I have confidence that we can become the team we want to see play in front of us at TD Place.

Year 5 is just around the corner, the roller coaster’s about to hit the drop, and I couldn’t be more excited, or terrified. Buckle up.

About Patrick

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.

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