MATCH ANALYSIS: Vancouver FC’s James Cameron provides Hollywood ending against Atlético Ottawa to keep playoff hopes alive

Final Score: Vancouver FC 2-1 Atlético Ottawa
Goalscorers: Cantave 6′, Cameron 90+1′; Bassett 18′
Game of the 2023 season: 93
CPL match: 460

Match in a minute or less

Vancouver FC kept their playoff hopes alive on Saturday, as they picked up a crucial 2-1 victory over Atlético Ottawa, thanks to a late James Cameron winner.

Yet, right from the very start, Vancouver seemed eager to grab the victory, as they knew what it would mean for their playoff hopes. As a result, they managed to find a lead after just six minutes, as Mikaël Cantave carefully slotted home on a breakaway to make it 1-0.

Their lead wouldn’t last very long, however, as Ottawa’s Ollie Bassett responded around 10 minutes later, pouncing on a Callum Irving turnover and slotting home into an empty net to tie the game up at one.

From there, however, that would set up a cinematic finish, one that Cameron fittingly provided in the 91st minute, as he slotted home his first professional goal to give his team all three points on the night.

Three Observations

Vancouver ticks off important milestone, maintain playoff hopes with determined performance:

For an expansion team like Vancouver, it’s important to celebrate the key milestones.

Therefore, while this victory was special for the emotions that it elicited from the team and its fans with its dramatic conclusion, it also represented the achievement of a key goal – they had ensured that they’d finish this inaugural season while claiming points off of everyone in the league.

With Ottawa representing the last team for them to tick off that box, having at least drawn or beaten everyone else in the league, it was an important milestone, one that they spoke of being of big importance heading into this game, and only echoed afterwards.

“It’s very special,” Vancouver’s head coach, Afshin Ghotbi, said of the win. “Because it’s not only just three points, but the fact that we did it against a very quality team in Ottawa, so I think is a great result for the whole football club, and it will give us an enormous amount of confidence and energy going forward.”

Yet, that was seen in their performance. Despite going up against a team that has more than had their number this season, they seemingly had an answer for nearly everything that their guests threw at them, and then some.

Even when they slipped up and gave Ottawa a lifeline that even their guest felt that they didn’t deserve, that being their first-half equalizing goal, Vancouver did well to respond and not get too down by such a deflating goal.

Instead, they kept after it, and were rewarded late for their patience, even if it meant overcoming the frustration of a few roadblocks (including another potential late winner that was ruled out due to an offside), to finally get their deserved reward with the late goal.

Eager not to let Ottawa control the game, Vancouver played the match on their terms, too, controlling the possession battle 55% to 45%, while creating 1.00 xG to Ottawa’s 0.95. As a result, that allowed them to spend most of the game on the front foot, because even though Ottawa generated 16 shots to Vancouver’s seven, most of them didn’t really end up threatening Vancouver’s goal.

The action maps from this game, highlighting how Vancouver controlled the game (OPTA)

Plus, most importantly, Vancouver didn’t deflate as the game went on, even as it seemed likelier and likelier that it’d end in Ottawa’s favour as they pushed for a winner, one that could’ve pushed them within five points of first place if they got it.

Unlike Vancouver’s most recent home game, a 3-0 loss to Forge where they were out of the game by the 50th minute, they made sure to not let any bad habits creep in as the game wore on.

As a result, when Cameron’s titanic winner breached the net, it felt like a due reward for how Vancouver had managed the tides of the match, staying on top of each wave as they came.

That’s a credit to their perseverance, as they continue to show that they won’t be pushovers for the rest of the season, even as they chase their slim playoff hopes.

“It gives us confidence,” Cantave said of what this win could provide. “It proves to us that what we’re doing is working and that we’re moving in the right direction. I know losing against Forge wasn’t the result that we’d hoped for, we’d put in a good shift and our stats were good that day, so we looked to build off of that.”

“Our staff doesn’t give up, our ownership hasn’t given up, our players haven’t given up, and I think today shows that.”

Fittingly, Cameron embodies that sort of perseverance, too – just weeks ago, he got benched after a poor reaction following his substitution from a clash against Pacific in which he had struggled, leaving the 18-year-old to miss out on the squad altogether the next week against York, before seeing the field for just 18 minutes the week after against Forge.

Despite that, he didn’t get too down by that – he kept after it, earned a start in this match, and then put in a very good defensive performance, before capping off his night with the winner.

Yet, that sort of reaction from Cameron to a moment that easily could’ve derailed his season just embodies the spirit that Vancouver wants to emit, and they certainly had that in spades in this game, allowing them to grab the victory.

“I think it’s very important for young players like James that when they have a setback, that they take a pause, and we gave him a pause,” Ghotbi explained of Cameron’s bounceback. “We had a lot of conversations, and he’s such an intelligent and wonderful kid, he even came to me afterwards to say that he appreciated us giving him that pause and the time to reflect and learn from that mistake.”

“And I think he had a fantastic game today. What a game it was, not just on the defensive side, but on the attacker side, along with the winner.”

James Cameron celebrates his late winner against Ottawa with his teammates (Photo Credit: Vancouver FC/Beau Chevalier)

Important details once again sink Ottawa late:

Ask any coach at the top level what distinguishes the best teams from those at the bottom, and most of them will answer with one term – details.

No matter if they’re playing their best football, or their worst, good teams can find a way to win when managing the details, as they can stray away from the moments that can really hurt a team.

That’s something that this Ottawa team knows very well – there’s a reason why they won last year’s regular season crown, and have been in contention to defend it all year long – they thrive when it comes to managing those sorts of moments.

Because of that, one can only imagine what was going through head coach Carlos González’s head as he watched Gianni Dos Santos pass the ball right to a Vancouver player on a late attack.

An unfortunate error that could happen to any player, it wasn’t the turnover that would’ve had González frustrated, however. Instead, it was the fact that Ottawa had five players running in front of Dos Santos, as they sent numbers forward to grab a later winner.

As a result, not only did that turnover send Vancouver the other way, but it jumpstarted a prime counter-attack.

There, Vancouver would make no mistake with the opportunity, leading to Cameron’s winner.

All thanks to one moment, what could’ve been a crucial Ottawa road point or even winner had turned into nothing, leaving them with a huge missed opportunity to grab a win on a weekend where everyone else in the top six had dropped points.

Yet, it’s been that sort of stretch for Ottawa, who fell 2-1 to Cavalry last week via a late goal, and drew Forge 0-0 in a low-event game the week prior.

Across those three games, they’ve certainly been good enough to perhaps grab wins on each occasion, but instead, all they’ve got to show for it is one point.

Therefore, instead of sitting in first, as they would’ve with three wins, they now sit fifth, eight points adrift of first place.

“We have to control better those sorts of situations,” González admitted. “I said that with counter-attacks, first of all, you have to finish your actions (to avoid them), but then if not you have to stop them. You cannot let them play as we did.”

“We have to correct those mistakes, because with these types of mistakes, we are not going to compete across the rest of the season.”

That just speaks to the importance of those key details in these sorts of games, however. There will be a lot for Ottawa to be pleased about from this game, no doubt – Ilias Iliadis was lively in multiple positions, Alberto Zapater was his usual reliable self in midfield, and Ottawa’s defence did well to keep Vancouver to just seven shots, yet those details will stand out to them as what hurt them the most on the night.

Those details hurt them on Cameron’s late winner, it hurt them on Vancouver’s opening goal, which also came off an Ottawa turnover with numbers high off the field, and it could very well cost them a title if they don’t clean them up, quickly.

They know as much, too, and will look to pivot quickly before it ends up being too late for them.

“It’s frustrating,” Ottawa’s Ollie Bassett lamented afterwards. “I don’t think we were good enough from the first whistle. I think we were second-best a little bit in the first half, and were maybe a bit fortunate to get the equalizer, but then we pushed and pushed, yet at the end, we made a bad giveaway and got punished.”

“But, yeah, full credit to Vancouver, they also worked hard to make it difficult for us, and they were full value for their win in the end.”

“It was very frustrating,” González added afterwards. “I don’t know if you can imagine my feelings at the moment. We didn’t do what we had to do today, and two big mistakes penalized us.”

Vancouver makes the most of transitional threat on both goals:

Speaking of those details, however, it’s also worth highlighting Vancouver’s management of those key details on both of their goals.

Of course, they both came from Ottawa turnovers, but to say that Vancouver didn’t create their luck would be a disservice to the effort they showed on both goals.

In particular, it’s worth noting how ruthless and direct they were on each goal.

First, on their opener, it took them just four passes before Cantave found himself in behind Ottawa’s defence, as they employed some impressive verticality to get up the pitch in a hurry, with Gabriel Bitar playing the killer pass to unlock it all.

Then, on their winner, it took them just three passes before Bitar this time found Shaan Hundal for the shot that led to Cameron’s goal on the subsequent rebound, as they were somehow even more vertical on that sequence.

Instead of using those turnovers as a chance to reset and build up, they took full advantage of the space provided to them, and then they pounced.

That’s key, as they’ve sometimes struggled to show that sort of ruthlessness in those moments this year.

Yet, that’s also a testament to the scouting that they’d done against Ottawa. Knowing that Ottawa can throw numbers forward in certain moments, before returning them in impressive numbers when they lose the ball, Vancouver knew that if they were to catch Ottawa in transition, it’d have to come in moments immediately after winning back possession.

The xG plot from this game, reflecting the success that Vancouver (in black) had in both boxes (OPTA)

Given that Ottawa has some pretty aggressive rotations between their on-ball and off-ball formation, they can sometimes leave gaps to play through, provided that you catch them at the right moment.

It’s worth noting that those moments don’t come very often – Ottawa’s one of the best teams in the league defensively for a reason, especially when they get behind the ball, but those moments are still there regardless.

In this game, however, Vancouver were able to capitalize on them, with Bitar playing a key role in finding that space, before Cantave and Cameron finished off their respective actions, and that allowed them to catch Ottawa by surprise.

“We know that’s a way that we could hurt them,” Cantave explained. “We’ve been working on it all week you know, the coaches told us in the pre-match meeting that we can find success that way, so we’re happy that it worked the way it did.”

With that, Vancouver also reminded teams that while they want to be a team that plays with the ball, as they did in this game, they can also hurt you in different ways, showing their ongoing evolution offensively, too.

“When you play Ottawa, and we talked about it before, if there’s one thing we had to focus on, it was that we needed to win the transition moments,” Ghotbi explained. “And control our reactions when it shifted from defence to attack, and vice versa, knowing that if it was swift and committed as a group, that we had a chance to win this game, and I think it was fantastic that we did that.” Player of the Match

Mikaël Cantave, Vancouver FC

Right from the first whistle, Cantave seemed to have an extra jolt of energy in his boots, as seen on the run he made to score his goal.

As a result, he was very active offensively, finishing with four out of seven dribbles and completing 13 out of 14 passes to go along with the goal, looking dangerous every time he saw the ball.

All of Cantave’s actions from this game (OPTA)

What’s next?

A tough test awaits Vancouver next week, as they’ll travel to Alberta to take on league leaders, Cavalry, at ATCO Field on Saturday, September 16th (2:00 p.m. PT/3:00 p.m. MT). Meanwhile, Ottawa will get set for some midweek action, as they’ll host Pacific at TD Place on Wednesday, September 13th (2:30 p.m. PT/5:30 p.m. ET).

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