Irreplaceable Ballou Tabla returns to Atlético Ottawa: ‘We can bring the whole city to TD Place’

The most electrifying player ever to suit up for Atlético Ottawa is back in the nation’s capital.

The club revealed on Monday that star forward Ballou Tabla has returned to the side he helped win the 2022 CPL regular season title, after Ottawa agreed to acquire him back from Turkish second division side Manisa FK.

The 24-year-old native of Abidjan, Ivory Coast — via Montreal — has signed a three-year contract with Ottawa.

“I don’t know how to even put it into words,” said Atleti CEO Fernando López, who explained that he had remained in contact with Tabla ever since he first left Ottawa for Manisa after the 2022 campaign.

Although Tabla had relative success in Turkey, contributing four goals and two assists in 23 total games there, he found himself wishing to come home. While speaking to López, he floated the idea of Ottawa contacting Manisa to see if there might be a way to bring him back to Canada — at which point López launched head-on into negotiating a deal that he says, at first, seemed like an impossible dream.

“I got the same feeling we got when he left Montreal, like, ‘Wow, why will a player like Ballou come and play with us?'” López recounted.

“I talked to [head coach] Carlos [González] and the staff and I said, ‘Guys, we still might have a chance.’ It started with a joke, we had a conversation, but now it’s a reality. It means a lot to us and I know to the city and to our fans as well.”

For Tabla himself, Ottawa continued to hold a special place in his heart even while he was overseas. To him, it’s where he rediscovered his love of the game.

He first arrived in Ottawa as well-known quantity in Canadian soccer. He’d been capped twice by the men’s national team and represented a handful of different youth teams, but by the time he came to the CPL his club career had stagnated somewhat. He had returned to CF Montréal for the 2020 and 2021 campaigns, after first departing that team in 2018 when he signed for FC Barcelona B. At the time, what he desperately needed was to be somewhere he could play consistently, and enjoy his football.

“I think that the 2022 season was very special for Atlético, but I think for Ballou Tabla himself it meant something different,” López said. “He came after a very rough time with Montreal, and I think in that year that he stayed with us he found the love back, and those feelings toward soccer that maybe he had missed in his previous year. So I think it was a special year for us and we bonded on a personal level.”

Tabla himself echoed that he has a personal bond with the club.

“My favourite club in Canada is Ottawa, because I had a great time here,” he said. “For me, it was easy to just come back here. I know the people here, I like how they treat me, how they’ve been with me when I was here. …

“[In Ottawa] I received the love; I can be free and express myself on the field and outside the field. The freedom to just be myself and not be judged for whatever. That’s the only secret I can tell you about Ottawa, from my perspective of everything.”

Tabla’s one season to date in the capital was outstanding enough to make him immediately one of the city’s most beloved players. He produced seven goals and four assists in that year, but also led the league in dribbles completed with 58. He won 144 duels, created 26 chances, and was fouled 44 times.

It was Tabla’s goal in the semifinal first leg against Pacific FC that helped Ottawa advance to the 2022 CPL Final, and at the end of the year he was nominated for the league’s Player of the Year award, and he finished second in Players’ Player of the Year voting.

He also scored one of the greatest goals that’s ever been seen in the CPL, finding the net with an otherworldly overhead kick at Calgary’s ATCO Field to secure a key away win for Ottawa over Cavalry FC:

Above all, though, it was Tabla’s role within a wider tactical system that spurred Ottawa’s magical regular season run. His attacking midfield role in coach Carlos González’s system meant opposing teams always had to be wary of his ability to devastate on the counter-attack, from anywhere on the pitch.

In fact, some fans and pundits have speculated that Tabla’s absence in 2023 was one of the major reasons behind Atleti’s disappointing sixth-place finish.

“I’m going to make a comparison and it’s going to sound like too much, but it’s kind of a Messi,” López said. “Ballou is a differential player. He’s a player that, when he’s on the field, he makes an impact and it makes a difference, not only for the team but for the teammates as well. Losing a player like him, it’s hard to replace, the same way that Messi is very hard to replace. I think when you miss a player like him at the CPL level, it’s hard to replace. I don’t know if there are many Ballous out there.”

Atlético Ottawa finished with 13 fewer points in 2023 than they had in 2022, including 11 fewer points on the road — which was where Tabla shone, being able to commit to the counter-attack. Four of his seven goals, and three of his four assists, came away from home that year, which led Atleti to a CPL-record 28 away points.

Tabla himself mentioned that one of his major goals in his return to Ottawa is to help improve the team’s home form; he can’t help but smile when speaking about his memories playing at TD Place, but he’d love nothing more than to produce a few more wins there. That includes, of course, the win that eluded him in his final game with Atleti: the 2022 CPL Final, which saw 15,000 people converge in the capital.

“I can’t wait to just give them more,” Tabla said. “Give them more, bring more to the fans. I hope that we’re going to grow the fanbase, and we can bring the whole city to TD Place. That’s the goal, that’s the point. I think we can do that, and it’s possible.”

Ballou Tabla ahead of the 2022 CPL Final. (Audrey Magny/CPL)

‘We’re turning the roster upside down’ — López on Atlético Ottawa’s off-season business

Tabla’s return isn’t the only news of this off-season for Atlético Ottawa, though. After a disappointing 2023, this was always going to be a winter of change for the club.

The first new addition for the 2024 campaign was announced shortly before the holidays, with Ottawa-born phenom Matteo de Brienne signing for the club after two years at Valour FC.

Head coach Carlos González was given a contract extension shortly after the season ended, and the club also retained a strong core of its biggest contributors from last year, including former Player of the Year and Golden Boot winner Ollie Bassett, goalkeeper Nathan Ingham, veteran fullback Maxim Tissot and eight others.

“Not making it into the playoffs, to me personally was considered a failure, and I know that for the rest of the players and the staff it was the same,” López admitted recently.

“So we really wanted to make this off-season about how we can improve the club and the team at all levels. We’re turning the roster upside-down, we’re making many changes.”

A few key pieces will need to be replaced in Ottawa, of course — all-time appearances leader Miguel Acosta, for instance, as well as centre-back stalwarts Diego Espejo and Luke Singh.

Overall, though, López is bullish on what’s shaping up to be a new kind of Atlético Ottawa in 2024. Winning is, unequivocally, the number one priority, but he’s also hopeful to see the team evolve into a more possession-focused, entertaining type of side.

In explaining his thinking, López recalled a recent town hall meeting with Atleti’s season seat holders. Some of the Ottawa faithful expressed frustration with the team, as a more defensive-minded style of play hadn’t been producing the same results it had in 2022.

The CEO asked the fans if they would prefer to play defensive football and win, or more entertaining football and possibly lose, to which the supporters naturally responded with the former — but still, the complaints were registered and López set about making some changes.

“We’ve been criticized as this defensive team, parking the bus, not playing possessive football, only playing counter-attack,” López said.

“In this league you cannot play every single game the same way. You play four times against the same team, and the same tricks don’t work every time. You cannot go to play the same teams with the same form because you’re going to fail.

“I believe that we built the [2023] roster thinking we were going to play in a different way, but I think we ended up playing in a very similar way to what we played in 2022, with different players. That’s no one’s fault, that’s just how things end up but from the conversations I have with the coaching staff I think we’re leaning toward playing a more possession-based football, especially because the players we’re bringing in indicate we’re going to change a little bit the formation and the system.”

Certainly, adding Ballou Tabla and Matteo de Brienne to the mix instantly makes Atlético Ottawa a more entertaining squad, with those two likely to be among the most exciting players in the CPL next year.

With a litany of further additions to come, it may not be long before playoff soccer returns to TD Place.

Atlético Ottawa vs Vancouver FC July 16, 2023 PHOTO: Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography