Liga MX vet Acuña brings wealth of experience to Atlético Ottawa: ‘I have a lot to give still’

Francisco Acuña took a few people by surprise when he signed for Atlético Ottawa this past winter.

The 32-year-old attacking midfielder was playing in Liga MX, Mexico’s top division and one of the toughest leagues in the Americas, as recently as last year. He’s a veteran of more than 130 games in the Mexican topflight and he’s won trophies in his native country.

Having played for years with top-tier Concacaf clubs such as Tigres UANL and Club Puebla, Acuña decided this year that the time was right to try something new. Speaking to through a translator, Acuña explained some of his thinking behind the surprise move to the Canadian Premier League.

“(I saw) the league, and the growth potential that this league has, being only the second year of its existence,” he said. “With the growth that MLS has had, obviously if we can mimic that here there’s a lot of potential to grow.”

He added: “The other thing too is to have the opportunity to continue playing at the highest level through my career. Continue playing, possibly a new challenge as well, in a new country, but mainly to continue my growth and my career playing the maximum games possible.”

Acuña has settled in nicely in Ottawa; although the current shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented him from exploring much of the city, he’s liked what he’s seen so far, pointing out in particular the balance between the lively downtown and the peaceful, family-friendly suburbs.

“I think everyone knows about Canada being a super nice country to come and visit,” he said.

Although he’d never been to Canada until a few months ago, Acuña had heard plenty about the country. In his final few seasons at Puebla, he lined up frequently with Canadian international Lucas Cavallini, who had nothing but good things to say about his home country.

Acuña and Cavallini were key pieces in a strong Puebla side, linking up occasionally for goals like this:

(That’s Acuña finding Cavallini with the long ball, and the Canadian striker dancing his way to the goal.)

According to Acuña, Cavallini told him all about soccer in Canada, reassuring him about the professionalism and quality that can be found here. He did his own homework, too, watching some videos of the CPL.

“I was able to see that it’s a very strong league, a very hard league physically,” Acuña said. “A lot of aerial duels, a very (contested) tournament.”

Plus, Acuña said, it’s hard to say no to being attached to a brand like Atlético Madrid’s.

The Mexican attacker certainly has one of the most impressive recent resumes in the CPL. He shrugged off suggestions that he might dominate in the league, though.

“I’ve had a bit of experience in Mexico in a good league, being 32 years old right now I come in as a veteran with experience, but in the end it’s all going to matter what we do on the field, to propose maybe a different style of soccer,” Acuña said.

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Certainly, Acuña’s “different style of soccer” will be worth the price of admission to any Atlético Ottawa game; a look at any of his highlight reels on YouTube shows that he has a knack for jaw-dropping passes and flashy dribbling.

He added that, with his wealth of experience, he’s hoping to impart some wisdom to the younger players around him in Ottawa.

“It comes out to all the little details. Things that I wouldn’t maybe pay attention to or focus on when I was younger, are things that I focus on right now,” he explained. “Talking to (teammates) about my experiences because I’ve been there a lot — in the end, I could be that figure. I could communicate my experiences, I could communicate that it comes to the minor details if you want to have a long career at the highest level.”

Atlético Ottawa has one of the younger squads in the CPL, and as they enter the league as a brand-new team, a veteran presence will be crucial. Acuña has been around the block many times, and he’s gone up against some of the best players on the continent. That’s valuable in any locker room.

Of course, Acuña is also very eager to show that he’s not all talk.

“I’m 32 years old, I think I have a lot to give still,” he said. Hopefully I can communicate it and then show it on the field so they can see that I know somewhat what I’m talking about.”