‘It’s certainly home now’: Carl Haworth to retire as legend of Ottawa soccer community

Carl Haworth let it be known from the time he was a first grader that he wanted to be a professional soccer player.

It’s not an uncommon dream for a kid born in the northwest of England, but for his teachers and classmates in Barrie, Ontario, it sounded a little far-fetched.

“You get laughed at, scoffed at as you’re growing up, but it was genuinely the only thing I could see myself doing,” Haworth told this week. “I had the drive and motivation to do so. I never really doubted my own ability to get to that rank, but to try and picture that happening in Canada was so foreign at the time.”

On Wednesday, Haworth, 34, announced his retirement after more than 200 games as a professional soccer player. His career has spanned 10 years across three pro clubs, and he has a cap for the Canadian men’s national team from a friendly against South Korea on Nov. 11, 2016, a date Haworth has tattooed on his arm.

“Growing up in Canada but with an English family, the earliest moments I have from life are just with a soccer ball at my feet,” Haworth said. “They sort of led me toward it, and I fell in love with the game from day one. Those early Saturday mornings watching the (English Premier League) with my dad every weekend helped me grow more and more in love, and it’s all I ever wanted to do.”

The Atlético Ottawa captain will hang up his boots at the end of the 2023 Canadian Premier League season, after playing for nine years in the capital across stints with Atleti and the Ottawa Fury. Nobody has played as many professional matches for Ottawa as Haworth’s 210 games and counting, as he closes out the final weeks of a career that will come to a close in the town where it started.

Haworth made his professional debut in the Fury’s inaugural match in the North American Soccer League (NASL); his mom flew from England to Fort Lauderdale to see him play on April 12, 2014. Finally, he felt he’d made it after a series of disappointments and unsuccessful trials that had him questioning whether his career might be over before it started, including being released by the Montreal Impact, now CF Montréal, in 2013 after he was drafted by the Québec-based side a year prior.

It’s a good thing he didn’t give up there.

When the Fury ceased operations as a professional club in 2019 after six seasons, playing its last four seasons in the USL Championship, Haworth was Ottawa’s only remaining original player, and the club’s all-time leader in appearances, at 174, and goals, at 28. Looking for a new club, he turned his attention south of the border, signing with USL side Indy Eleven.

Haworth was a free agent again two turbulent years later, leaving Indianapolis after a difficult stint marred by injury and the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s when Atlético Ottawa came calling.

Haworth didn’t hesitate to return to his adopted home in 2022. He said last year that once he left Ottawa he was “counting down the time” until he would be back. 

“The moment I stepped foot in the city it just felt like home right away,” he said this week. “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.”

Haworth was born in Southport, England and raised in Barrie, but the Canadian capital occupies a special place in his heart. It is where Haworth met his wife, whom he married in December last year, and welcomed his first child a little more than a month ago. 

And he has continued to make an impact on the pitch in the Atlético era.

Haworth played 27 games for Ottleti in his first year with the club, helping spur them to the 2022 regular season title and a spot in the CPL Final. He had played for Ottawa in a final once before, the 2015 NASL climax, which the Fury lost to Raúl and the New York Cosmos, but never at TD Place.

The house at Lansdowne Park is a special place for Haworth, who was the first player to score in that stadium for the Fury as a professional club in a 2-1 loss to Fort Lauderdale in 2014. Eight years later he was captaining another Ottawa pro side at a final in that stadium, in front of 15,000 fans.

At the beginning of the 2023 campaign, as Atlético Ottawa prepared to defend its regular season title and avenge its loss in the CPL Final, Haworth was named club captain, succeeding the retired Drew Beckie.

He hasn’t been on the pitch in 2023 quite as much as the year before, making 14 appearances and six starts this season, but he has played his part. His seven goal contributions, including three goals and four assists, are third-most on the team, and he’s been in the CPL’s Team of the Week three times.

Haworth’s leadership is consistently felt off the pitch, too. His coach, Carlos González, speaks very highly of the difference it made this year when his captain was able to travel with the team and be in the locker room on a day-to-day basis, compared to when injuries kept him sidelined. He is a leader in the community too, supporting grassroots soccer in the area, helping coach local youth side Ottawa Gloucester Hornets, and taking part in important charity initiatives like Playing for Pride — a campaign he and several teammates have been participating in for years.

Never the biggest kid on the field, and passed over several times for that reason, it was Haworth’s work rate and determination on the pitch that eventually landed him in the pro game. He has played all over the field, from centre-forward to the wing to right-back, even getting a few nods as a number 10 under Paul Dalglish with the Fury. His wicked right foot and ability from set-pieces have also produced some memorable moments in Ottawa.

That same right leg is unfortunately part of the reason Haworth is calling it quits. The trouble began in 2021, when he was with Indy Eleven. It seemed fairly innocuous at first, a minor meniscus tear in his right knee. A quick surgery was expected to get him back on the pitch in four weeks.

That’s not how it panned out, as is too often the case with such injuries. The knee responded well to treatments and rehab at first. Haworth worked hard to regain his strength, and underwent a seemingly constant stream of procedures, injections and drainage to get it closer to playing shape, although the pain never fully went away.

Haworth played just four games that year in Indianapolis, making no starts.

The injury took another downward turn after his first season with Atlético Ottawa, in which he’d been on the field with encouraging consistency.

Haworth could feel he wasn’t in the place he wanted to be during preseason in February 2023, which quickly led him to consider a decision that no professional athlete ever wants to make.

“We were behind it from day one, just trying to catch up and heal while also trying to play and do fitness during preseason,” he said. “This season was very difficult for me, physically and mentally, so that decision was always kind of there at the back of my head going into the season that, unless things change or I miraculously recover from this chronic injury, then this would likely be my last season.”

The 2023 campaign so far has had plenty of highs and lows for both Haworth and his club. He scored his first Atlético goal in July, and a brace in a wild comeback draw against York United FC. It is his most productive attacking season since 2019.

But he couldn’t shake the thought of retirement from the back of his mind. No athlete ever wants to admit they’re no longer the player they once were, or that their time in the game might be ending, but Haworth’s knee didn’t give him much choice.

He took a while to get his head around it, but as the final weeks of the season approached Haworth chose to pull the trigger on announcing his retirement. Making the announcement days before Atleti’s final home game of the regular season ensures Ottawa’s passionate fans can give him a proper send-off, although they will all hope to return to TD Place in the playoffs.

The next chapter in Haworth’s life began long before this season. Getting married in the winter and becoming a father in August have provided him a glimpse of what family life after professional soccer will look like.

Moving into a new phase of life will make retirement easier to swallow, Haworth said.

“Getting married, having a baby, that certainly changes your perspective on life and what’s really important,” he said.

“Not to say that this isn’t important, it’s been a big part of my life for a very long time, but it’s more that I have to take care of my body now to be able to be there for my son as he grows up, and to be able to help my wife through those years. Different priorities come into play, and it definitely gives more clarity to my mindset and my mentality around the decision. It made it a lot easier knowing that I’ve got that family to look forward to.”

With retirement looming, one of the things Haworth said he’s most looking forward to — other than spending time with his family, of course — is a vacation.

Haworth and his wife have yet to take a honeymoon, which is high on the list of to-dos. He’s thinking Italy next summer.

There’s one thing on Haworth’s mind before he can really think about any of that, though: the next six weeks.

Atlético Ottawa remain in a tight playoff race, and Haworth has decided to get one more injection and draining on his knee to get him through the end of the season. His priority is ensuring that this Sunday against Valour FC is not the final game he plays at TD Place.

The man who has already given so much to soccer in Ottawa would love to deliver it one last gift.

A trophy.