In a blockbuster move sure to make waves across the Canadian Premier League, Atlético Ottawa announced on Friday the acquisition of 2023 Golden Glove-nominated goalkeeper Rayane Yesli from Valour FC.
The 24-year-old, who grew up in Montréal, Québec, earned that recognition after starting all but two of Valour’s matches last season, making the second-most saves in the league, with 81, and keeping seven clean sheets (tied for third-most). After two seasons and 35 matches played with the Winnipeg club, however, he is ready for a new challenge in the nation’s capital, signing a one-year contract with a club option to extend the deal until the end of 2025.
“I’m really happy to be here,” Yesli told CanPL.ca. “I felt like this was the best step for my career, because based on the project that Fernando [López] and the coaching staff showed me, we have the same objectives this year, which is to win, to win as many games as we can and to win the league. This is what I wanted, to be in an organization that had that as a main goal. I feel like a different coaching staff and a city closer to home is something that’s going to help me to grow.”
Valour, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to address and improve multiple positions. In accompanying moves, Valour announced the acquisition of Atlético Ottawa midfielder Noah Verhoeven on loan, as well as the signing of 32-year-old goalkeeper Jonathan Viscosi.
Viscosi has played in the National League in the U.K., as well as in Sweden, Finland and the United States. He most recently played for VPS in Finland.
“Rayane was good for us, he’s a bright young man and I wish him the best of luck, 100 per cent, and I think he has a bright future,” Valour head coach Phil Dos Santos told CanPL.ca. “But the truth is that we also saw the opportunity of adding a bit of leadership and experience to our lineup, and that’s what Jonathan is. He’s a very vocal, very commanding goalkeeper, he likes to control his box well. I think that he’s a good shot-stopper, he’s a little bit more pragmatic with his feet, he’s someone that minimizes risks and I like that side of him.”
“I think at the end of the day it’s important to have that experience at the back, I think with the addition also of Haris [Chantzopoulos], of Tass [Mourdoukoutas], it was important for us to get a little bit older, a little bit more experienced, a little bit more leadership there.”
Midfield is another area that Valour have been keen to improve this off-season, and they feel that the talented Verhoeven, who has played over 100 CPL matches between Pacific, York and Atlético Ottawa before his 25th birthday, will bring much-needed quality to the centre of the park. Verhoeven recently extended his contract with Ottawa through the 2025 season.
“Noah is a player I always liked,” said Dos Santos. “He’s a player that has quality on the ball. He’s a player that allows the team to be on the ball and we like his work ethic. What I think he’s going to bring is a bit of range in the midfield, I think we lacked that last year, and that left foot in set play delivery with the addition of a player like Themi [Antonoglou], I think we gain two very strong players in that front. For us, it was important to look at the departure of a player like [Diego Gutiérrez], and it is not easy to replace him with a good domestic player.”
From an Atlético Ottawa perspective, this move might raise a few eyebrows because the club already has one of the top goalkeepers in the league, having signed 30-year-old Nathan Ingham to a multi-year deal which will keep him with the club through the 2025 season. As the club retools after a disappointing sixth-place finish in 2023, however, one of the goals is to have quality and depth at every position, and adding Yesli to the mix certainly accomplishes that in net.
“The addition of Yesli, I think that it’s going to be beneficial, not only for the team, at the end of the day the team is going to be the bigger beneficiary, but also this addition is going to be good for Nate, and for Yesli,” Atlético Ottawa head coach Carlos González told CanPL.ca. “It’s going to be good for Nate because I think it is going to increase the competitiveness of the position, I think that is very important to have healthy competition in all of the positions on the roster. In this case, in the goalkeepers I’m sure 100 per cent that this type of competition between Nate and Yesli is going to make them better.
“At the end of the day, I think there is space for both,” he added. “I think that both are going to grow and both are going to help in the performances and in the challenges of the team in the season.”
González says Yesli shows impressive ambition for being willing to move out of his comfort zone and step into a competitive goalkeeper situation that will force him to continually raise his level.
“Things that I liked from Rayane seeing him the last two seasons are plenty, mainly the personality that he shows,” said González. “The capacity, although he is a young goalkeeper, to be stable on the goal and the personality and the ambition that he shows. I think that is probably one of the things that most caught my eye since the beginning. Of course, his technical qualities everybody knows them.”
For his part, this is not a new situation for Yesli. When he signed with Valour in January 2022, he joined a club that already featured 2021 CPL Golden Glove winner Jonathan Sirois, who was in his second CPL campaign on loan from CF Montréal. By the end of the year, Yesli had largely won the starting spot, playing in eight of the final 12 matches of the season. Sirois has since returned to Montréal, where this past season he was named the MLS club’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“You can learn from everybody,” said Yesli. “You learn from every single goalkeeper that you play with. We normally all have a different style of play, different abilities, different frames also. So there is something to learn from everybody. I’ve been in situations where I wasn’t playing too much, and situations where I was playing every single game, and you always learn from the guy that is either in front of you or not playing. So I’m looking forward to it.”
At the end of the day, though, Yesli knows that playing time is paramount for a young player. He wouldn’t be coming to Ottawa if he didn’t see an opportunity to get minutes and further progress as a player.
“I feel like for progression, games are something that is really important,” he says. “You can only get a few amount of things out of training, but games are experience, games are always different, and I think it is from these situations that you learn the most.”
Another big factor in his signing with Ottawa is the club’s ambition, which has been shown this off-season through a string of impressive signings including former Forge midfielder Aboubacar Sissoko and Canadian internationals Kris Twardek and Ballou Tabla.
They also added Yesli’s former Valour teammate Matteo de Brienne, winner of the league’s 2023 Best U-21 Canadian award, earlier this off-season. Before signing with Atleti, Yesli spoke at length with de Brienne about the city and the club, and was given an incredibly positive impression of both.
“First of all the main goal is to win the regular season, and to go as far as we can in the playoffs,” said Yesli. “So after that I feel I have the mindset that if a team does well individuals are going to stand out. I’m sure that if the team does well the goalkeeper can showcase himself also. From a personal point of view, I would say that winning the Golden Glove award is a goal of mine. It is not something that is hidden, I think it’s something that is pretty obvious. Being nominated last year was good, but I think that I will try to go a step further this year.”
Yesli is the 16th different player to depart Valour this off-season as the league’s last-place club in 2023 undergoes a significant rebuild ahead of 2024. That has included the departures of fellow fan favourites like Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Diego Gutiérrez and de Brienne.
While Dos Santos can understand the frustration of his fanbase at losing so many beloved players, this off-season has been about improving the sum of the parts on the Valour roster. He believes that even despite losing some key building blocks, the overall structure of the squad has become better this off-season.
“There are going to be new heroes in town, new people that will come in and be loved as well and I think that’s the way I want to see it,” said Dos Santos. “I think that it’s always good when your fans are vocal about their opinion because it means that they care. But only time will tell us if these changes were good for the club or not and I really think that today this is the direction that the club took. I asked for patience, I think that we are bringing in a good group of guys, guys that want to win for the club and I’m sure that the fans will appreciate them and will fall in love with them as well.”
Having now made ten new signings this off-season, Dos Santos says they are not done building the team just yet. In particular, he would still like to add another offensive piece, but is willing to wait for the right situation to present itself — a strategy that has served the club well over the past few months.
“We are not in a rush, I think we have been patient,” said Dos Santos. “We’ve hit targets that we really wanted. I’m going to repeat this but Shaan [Hundal] we started to work on him even last year, you look at a player like Tass, Themi is someone that we started to follow at the end of last year and not knowing where everything was going to go even with Matteo de Brienne, but we wanted to be prepared. So we were patient and it paid off so, we want to remain patient.”
Exactly how these moves pan out for both sides will be an intriguing storyline to watch during the 2024 campaign. What is certain is that Atlético Ottawa and Valour, both of which missed the postseason in 2023, will look significantly different this upcoming season. That in itself should be an exciting prospect for both sets of fans and those of the league.