Welcome to CPL5x5. As we say farewell to 2023, we’ll be looking back one more time at the Canadian Premier League’s milestone fifth season, and how each of the eight clubs fared this year.
In this series, we’ll break down the full story of each team’s year within five sections: Five stats, five key players, five big moments, five quotes, and five questions for 2024.
To read the 5×5 year in review for every other CPL club, click here.
The sophomore season for Carlos González did not go quite as smoothly as 2022. In his second campaign as Atlético Ottawa manager, the club wasn’t able to defend its regular season title, and instead finished in sixth place — two points behind the playoffs, and eliminated from contention by the time they took the pitch in their final game.
It was a year of frustration in Ottawa after the soaring highs of the year before, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything to cheer about. The club still provided some outstanding moments in the grand scheme of the 2023 CPL campaign, but fell just short at the final hurdle.
Story of 2023
2023 CPL regular season record (W-D-L): 10-6-12
Goals scored: 38
Goals against: 34
Goal difference: +4
Top scorer: Ollie Bassett (11)
Canadian Championship: Lost to Forge FC on penalties in quarter-final
47 per cent
Atleti struggled for scoring depth, especially among their attacking group, this season, as 18 out of their 38 CPL goals came from just two players — Golden Boot co-winner Ollie Bassett (11) and Samuel Salter (7). Bassett in particular had an outstanding season to follow up his 2022 Player of the Year campaign, but the fact that Ottawa’s most consistent goalscoring threat this year was a midfielder was something of a concern for the squad.
11 fewer points
Part of what drove Atlético Ottawa’s surge to the top of the table a year ago was their outstanding record away from home. In 2022, they set a CPL record with 28 points on the road — seven more than any other side that year, en route to winning the regular season title by two points. This year, Ottawa only had the fifth-most away points with 17, for a drop-off of 11 points year-over-year. If they’d had just six of those 11, they would’ve finished with 42 points, tied for second place.
5 late goals
Ottawa’s playoff push really met its end in a seven-game winless run that lasted from the end of August to the beginning of October. In that stretch, they lost five games. What was most heartbreaking for González and co., however, was that in every single one of those games, they gave up the winning goal in the 88th minute or later — even despite two occasions (against Cavalry and Halifax Wanderers) where they themselves scored a stoppage-time equalizer, only to concede again seconds later.
61 yellow cards
Atleti improved their discipline this season, with 61 yellow cards in 2023 being a marked improvement from 73 in 2022. They had just one player sent off this year and only gave away one penalty kick, improving on previous years. They conceded slightly fewer fouls as well, and in less dangerous positions more often than not. That said, Atleti also saw a marked drop-off in their ability to win fouls, going from 375 in 2022 to just 271 this season.
5 Key Players in 2023
After cruising to the 2022 Player of the Year award, Bassett had another outstanding season in 2023, becoming a crucial goalscoring threat from midfield. His 11 goals led to Bassett sharing the Golden Boot award with Cavalry’s Myer Bevan, and he was a tremendous creative influence as well, especially in counter-attacking moments. He’s far and away the most important player in Atleti’s lineup, and will likely continue to be.
The 30-year-old goalkeeper has settled in very well in Ottawa after two years now, and will continue to be a key leader for this team in years to come after signing a new deal to keep him there through 2025 several weeks ago. Ingham posted seven clean sheets for Atleti this year and made 22 starts in the regular season, and he made one of the most impressive saves of the year in a match against Pacific to keep his team’s playoff hopes alive:
The 20-year-old from Russell, Ontario first joined Atlético Ottawa on a U SPORTS contract this year, making a couple of cameo appearances off the bench until his big break came in the form of a start against Pacific in mid-August. The young centre-back was outstanding in his first professional start, helping stifle the Tridents to keep a crucial clean sheet and earning praise from his teammates after the game. Walker recently signed a full pro deal to remain with his hometown club, who will hope to see his development continue.
El Toro arrived from Spain in the summer as one of the most highly-touted signings in Ottawa’s history. The 38-year-old midfielder came with over 400 appearances for Spanish club Real Zaragoza, including 138 top-flight games in La Liga. He helped stabilize an Atleti midfield that had been missing a veteran presence, playing every minute after his first start on July 13 to make a total of 16 appearances. Ottawa triggered Zapater’s contract option to keep him around for 2024, which will be a boon to a side looking to improve at several different positions.
Ouimette was a high-profile addition to Ottawa’s squad this year, coming with a wealth of experience in MLS as well as USL and NASL. The Canadian international was tapped to fill the shoes of Drew Beckie after the former Atleti captain’s retirement, and Ouimette was up to the task. He only missed two games all year, which was crucial for an Ottawa team that had a slew of other injuries in defence, and he proved capable of doing an effective job at both centre-back and right-back. The 31-year-old was an excellent soldier for González this year, and he’ll be back in 2024.
5 Great Moments
May 13 — 5-0 win in Vancouver
Atleti struggled out of the gate this year, going winless in their first four league matches. Those troubles culminated in a lopsided 4-1 loss on home turf to Pacific FC, putting a lot of pressure on Carlos González’s side. They arrived in Langley, B.C. for the first time in club history just a few days removed from losing to Forge FC on penalties in the Canadian Championship. Despite the fatigue, jet lag and lagging confidence, though, they absolutely battered Vancouver FC. Ollie Bassett had a goal and an assist, as did Zach Verhoven — within a minute of each other, moments after he’d entered as a substitute. The 5-0 road win was just what Ottawa needed to lift their spirits, finally putting them in the win column in emphatic fashion.
July 12 — Late triumph in Calgary
By mid-July, Cavalry had begun to look more like the team that would go on to cruise to the regular season title. They entered this mid-July game at ATCO Field having won three straight, and they would go on to win two more in a row after. On this day, however, Atleti were intent on spoiling the party. After 80 minutes of frustratingly scoreless football, Ottawa’s Malcolm Shaw found himself taken down in the box by Marco Carducci. Bassett nailed the penalty kick, and just minutes later they sealed the win as Samuel Salter launched a counter-attack, picking out an unmarked Jean-Aniel Assi with a wonderful pass. Assi made no mistake, and Ottawa banked a massive win on the road.
Aug. 5 — Double comeback vs. York
Atleti were no strangers to a high-scoring roller coaster of a game this season, having been on the losing end of a wild 4-3 game at Tim Hortons Field earlier in the year. This time, though, they came into a matchup against York United at TD Place in good spirits, having beaten Cavalry again the week before. Until, that is, York scored twice in two minutes to leave Atleti in a deep hole after just 26 minutes. However, their captain Carl Haworth wouldn’t let them go down without a fight, scoring once before halftime and then again with a stellar free kick just before the hour mark to draw the hosts level. York took the lead again shortly after Haworth’s second goal, but an 81st-minute Diego Espejo header brought Ottawa back onto even footing and they held on for a hard-fought 3-3 draw in one of the more memorable contests in the capital this year.
Sept. 24 — Mr. Ottawa says goodbye
Atleti captain Carl Haworth announced his retirement on Sept. 20, just a few days before his team’s final home match of the regular season. After more than 200 professional games played for the city of Ottawa, Haworth hung up his boots at the age of 34 as one of the best to ever lace them up in the nation’s capital. He was greeted with an overwhelmingly warm ovation in that last home game against Valour, where he was applauded off the pitch in the 57th minute by a club-record 7,044 fans. Although Atleti would go on to lose that game to a last-minute Walter Ponce winner, it was nonetheless an emotional occasion as the club said goodbye to a legend.
Dec. 21 — Local boy de Brienne comes home
It’s not a moment that happened during the season, but Atlético Ottawa fans received perhaps the best Christmas gift of any CPL fanbase this year when they learned that Barrhaven, Ont. native Matteo de Brienne had signed for the club. The 21-year-old has been a star for Valour FC the last two years and there was perhaps no player Ottawa fans wanted on their side more than him. After a long period of courtship, where Atleti fans peppered the young attacker with pleas, de Brienne at last did decide to sign in his hometown, sparking a new wave of excitement for 2024 among fans in the capital.
“I don’t think it’s a unique factor that is making us lose in extra time, but the bigger factor probably is that the necessity of going to win games and and the mental demand of that throughout our very long season. This long season [had] a lot of mental demands from the beginning in which you lost a lot of points in the beginning, this makes it so that for more than half of the season you are chasing the season. You are trying to win every single game because it’s not enough, too tight. This creates a mental fatigue or something that creates that, that small details in certain moments are punishing us.”– Head coach Carlos González after the season ended
“Grow up. First thing I said to the group in the locker room when I got in there, everybody’s got their heads hanging. I feel like we’ve been feeling sorry for ourselves for a month, we have no time for it. I just told them to pray to whoever you believe in that Vancouver do us a favour and we prepare this week like that’s what’s going to happen, then we show up and take care of business. I don’t think at this point we deserve another opportunity, but if we’re given it I hope to God the locker room wakes up and we get it done, because it feels like a lot of guys are in the wrong profession right now.” — Nathan Ingham after Ottawa’s 1-0 loss to York United
“[There was] a little inexperience in the locker room who thought because we did something last year, it somehow translated to what this year was going to be. That’s not how football works. We went in, I think, a little soft in the preseason. That’s where the issue started. … I was trying to find a way as one of the leaders to stop a tailspin and not turn one loss into more than one loss, that’s something that I was learning on the on the fly and something that I’ve gotten better at over the season and I think we’ll take that into next year.” —Ingham after the 2023 season
“The moment I stepped foot in the city it just felt like home right away. It’s a gorgeous city to live in, you’ve got a good balance. Your city life, your outdoor life, it’s really right up my alley. It felt like home right away, and then with all the connections and relationships that I’ve established over the years, it certainly is home now.” — Former captain Carl Haworth on his affection for Ottawa
“I just felt that this opportunity here was where I was meant to be. It’s a great feeling because this is home for me, so the fact that people are excited for it to happen just makes me even happier to think of it, but it’s more motivation for me. I know playing in Ottawa is not something that is easy, and I know the ask will be high. Personally, I’m up for this challenge and I want to make sure this is a year where I can really push myself past everything.” — Matteo de Brienne on signing for Ottawa
5 Questions for 2024
Where will the goals come from?
Atlético Ottawa had a problem putting the ball in the net this season, with just 38 goals scored (fifth-most in the league). They defended well, landing with a +4 goal differential, but they’ll be disappointed with the production they received from the attacking group. Samuel Salter, whom they acquired from Halifax in the prior off-season, finished second on the team in scoring, but they still would’ve wanted more than seven goals from him. Malcolm Shaw, who scored 10 goals in 2021 but hasn’t managed to recapture that form yet, scored just one this season. Similarly, new additions for 2023 Gianni dos Santos and Jean-Aniel Assi both had just four goal contributions. Whether it requires a tactical change or reinforcements from outside the club, Atlético Ottawa definitely have to find a way to score more goals in 2024.
What does Zapater have left in the tank?
Veteran Spanish midfielder Alberto Zapater has a wealth of experience that can help this team, having played at such a high level for most of his career. He played almost every single minute for Ottawa after arriving midseason, but at 38 years old it feels unlikely to expect that of him over the course of an entire CPL campaign. There were times last year where fatigue did start to take its toll, so it’ll be interesting to see how much Carlos González opts to rely on El Toro. Atleti may need one or two additional players to help share the load, especially after the defensive midfield position was a weak spot in the first half of 2023.
Is there a centre-back en route?
An early look at Ottawa’s roster for 2024 suggests there’s a serious hole the club has to fill in defence. Macdonald Niba has left the club after his contract expired, and both Diego Espejo and Luke Singh returned to their parent clubs (Atlético Madrid and Toronto FC, respectively) as their loans have now ended. That leaves Karl Ouimette and Tyr Walker as the only natural central defenders in the squad. Walker only played his first handful of professional games this year, so it doesn’t seem likely he steps in immediately as an everyday starter throughout a long season. Ottawa will almost certainly bring in at least one, if not several, defenders to bolster a team that has traditionally been very solid at the back.
Where will de Brienne fit into the lineup?
When Matteo de Brienne signed for Atlético Ottawa the first time, back in 2020, he was touted as a winger. He played most of his time at youth level and with Carleton University in an attacking role. However, in his time at Valour over the past two years, de Brienne was asked to play at left fullback or left midfield quite a lot. The extra defensive responsibilities helped elevate his game a great deal and turned him into a more well-rounded player, but part of the appeal in signing for Atleti might have been a promise of more attacking opportunities. De Brienne will likely continue to play in several different roles, but as a marquee member of this squad he might be given the chance to play most of his minutes higher up the pitch. The situation might become clearer once it’s determined whether or not the out-of-contract Maxim Tissot will be back with the club.
Can TD Place become a fortress?
TD Place Stadium has developed a reputation for having one of the most boisterous atmospheres in the CPL, with fans regularly packing out the south stand. However, that atmosphere has yet to truly develop into a home field advantage for Atlético Ottawa, who won just five out of 14 home games in 2023 for 19 points — fewer than 21 the year before. They didn’t win at home until their fifth appearance at TD Place this year, which was a cause for frustration among fans. Next year, they’ll be demanding more from their side when playing at home, hoping to enjoy a few more joyful nights.