Chapter 5 Begins: 2024 Off-Season Review/Season Preview (Part 1)

Chapter 5 Begins: 2024 Off-Season Review/Season Preview (Part 1)

The longest off-season in world football is finally coming to a close. The gridiron lines are set to be removed from the TD Place turf ahead of April 13th, and Atletico Ottawa’s 5th season as a club will begin against the nine stripes of York United. Much as has been the case over the last two seasons, there has been a tremendous amount of turnover up and down the roster. While last season saw healthy optimism in the wake of a tremendous 2022 campaign, the expectation level for 2024 has soared following the disappointment of 2023. This overwhelming positivity for what’s to come this season has emerged because of what we, and many others, have dubbed the “Cold Fernando Winter”. To those that have followed the Canadian Premier League, the list of names set to adorn the red and white in 2024 will read as a veritable all-star team. Combine that with a tremendous infusion of local flavour to the roster from both returning and new players, and there’s no way anyone could look at what’s on paper and think to themselves “there’s disappointment brewing here”.

Pictured: Manny Aparicio with the Atlético Ottawa scarf following his signing (Credit: Chris Hue / Atlético Ottawa)

But of course, you can. The recruitment plan put forward by the club this offseason has all the balance of a 19-year-old stepping out of Happy Fish at 2 am on a Saturday night. While players who did not perform to the level of expectation last season were moved on for other, more promising individuals, the club has also lost some of its shining lights from not only 2023 but, more importantly, the successful 2022 side. The expectation of Diego Espejo returning for a third season on loan was certainly not in anyone’s internal calculus, but the thought of Miguel Acosta departing, who had become so beloved in this city, was unfathomable. Combine these losses with the retirement of Karl Ouimette, and the only consistently performing player to return in the backline will be Luke Singh, returning on loan from Toronto FC.

The rumours surrounding Amer Didic’s possible inclusion in this side are running rampant, and his inclusion would quell most of my concerns about the defence; however, the 29-year-old’s primary intention remains finding a club in Europe which means we cannot be certain of his presence in the back line just yet. The choices made in the offseason clearly demonstrate the focus in recruitment has been about the attack. In a league built around defensive success, as conceding fewer goals has been a more consistent marker for higher regular season points totals than scoring, concentrating heavily on the front third of the pitch rather than a holistic approach to recruitment may come back to bite ATO.

And yet, this is what we’ve been begging for. Some of our pre-season results have made us all tremble with excitement as the attacking talent that we know exists in this line-up is starting to manifest itself on the pitch. To see Ruben Del Campo finally score a goal after a dry spell that stretched throughout his 2023 campaign makes me think that the individual creativity that we were clearly lacking last season is going to be on full display in 2024. Just imagining what the midfield triangle of Ollie Bassett, Manny Aparicio, and Alberto Zapater could potentially concoct has given me the energy needed to push through the end of March towards a long and fruitful summer. 

Pictured: Atlético Ottawa striker Ruben Del Campo during the match in which he scored against the Atlético de San Luis U23 side. (Credit: Chris Hue - Atlético Ottawa)

Having Kevin dos Santos as an impact player who can play across the frontline when we struggled so mightily for attacking depth last season is another boon that is going to go under-reported. The fact that we’ve recruited so many players who feel comfortable with the ball at their feet will allow someone like Sam Salter to be able to play along the defensive line of the opponent without having to worry about dropping deep to receive the ball all the time to get his touches. All of this is without mentioning the returning Ballou Tabla. The former Barcelona B man will be the crown jewel of an attack that looks to improve on the 42 goals the team scored in all competitions in 2023. The tactical versatility that these new signings bring Carlos Gonzalez will make it difficult for opponents to game plan - if used effectively.

Effectively is certainly the operative word in that sentence, as unfortunately the implementation of a possession-based attack last season did not manifest the results that Carlos Gonzalez anticipated. Perhaps the personnel had a lot to do with it, but the best managers can generate something from players despite whatever they may be lacking individually. The functional, defensive style of play worked in 2022, and was reverted to in parts of the 2023 season, but only to marginal success. Going forward, through two seasons, there really hasn’t been a measurable improvement made by those in attack.

My biggest issue with the way that Atletico Ottawa played last season, particularly by the end of the year, was the deployment of Ollie Bassett down the right side of the pitch. His heat map for the season could have been confused for a right winger rather than a right-sided player in the midfield, and it felt like the team suffered in the middle of the pitch because of the ball being at his feet a significant portion of the time going forward. A stagnant attack is the last thing any Atletico Ottawa fan wants to see next year given the lack of offensive firepower on display at home the last two seasons, and we’re crying out for change in the final third. Carlos Gonzalez’s promises about moving towards an attacking style of play did not bear fruit last season, and so there must be a question about his position if there aren’t immediate returns with the weapons he’s been given.

Pictured: The Atlético Ottawa roster alongside sister club Atlético de San Luis  (Credit - Atletico de San Luis)

Those are my grand ideas about what this offseason has meant and what I’m thinking about heading into this new year. It’s a lot of contradictory beliefs, certainly, but that’s the pitfall of spending an entire winter pouring over equally how poorly or how well this season could go. In many ways, it has been a Cold Fernando Winter, but there’s a sinking feeling in my stomach that it’ll also be a Cold Fernando Summer because of the massive expectations that are, fairly or unfairly, being placed on this team before the first whistle is sounded. Maybe it’s because I have thought too much about what could go wrong that I’ve not been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The magical scenario where all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and bring us the Mona Lisa on a football pitch. An adjustment period is going to be necessary with this much turnover in the squad, and if we don’t hit the ground running, there might be a gap between us and the other assumed top teams (Cavalry, Halifax, and Forge) that might not be able to be recovered.

This makes it even more important to note that there’s the potential to start the season with 5 of our first 6 games at TD Place, pending the result of the Voyageurs’ Cup match against Valour on May 1st. We as a fanbase have been crying out for a team that can put the ball in the back of the net at home and get results like a top side should. The away form of 2022 was clearly an aberration, and I’d be shocked if any other CPL side ever carried the same level of form throughout an entire season again. Given that caveat, we will need to be far more successful than we’ve ever been at home to consider challenging for silverware. The fact remains we’ve never finished in the top half of the home form table since we began playing at TD Place. If we want to be the club we purport ourselves to be with the players we’ve managed to bring in, that must change this season. I wouldn’t be able to stand a 4th consecutive season without claiming a single victory at home against either of the other clubs from Ontario, and I know you wouldn’t either.

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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