‘Where I was meant to be’: U-21 Player of the Year Matteo de Brienne returns home to Atlético Ottawa

Atlético Ottawa fans received perhaps the number one item on their holiday wishlist this week, with news that local hero Matteo de Brienne has returned to the capital, signing a multi-year deal with the Canadian Premier League club.

De Brienne, a 21-year-old hailing from the Ottawa area, has opted to join his hometown team in arguably the biggest move of the 2023-24 CPL off-season so far. After two breakout seasons at Valour FC, in which he scored six goals and played the first 44 games of his professional career, de Brienne returns home as a bona fide marquee player in the league.

The young star, freshly removed from winning the CPL’s 2023 Best U-21 Canadian Player award in October, was a highly sought-after free agent this winter, and after painstaking deliberation and, in his words, “overthinking,” de Brienne at last came to the decision to depart Winnipeg and head to Ottawa.

“I just felt that this opportunity here was where I was meant to be,” de Brienne told this week. “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.”

The reception de Brienne received from the TD Place faithful will, naturally, be a warm one; the Ottawa native has been publicly courted on social media by Atleti fans over the past few months, and he’s well aware of how much supporters have wanted him to sign for the club.

This homecoming has been years in the making, though.

Keen consumers of Canadian Premier League transaction news may remember that de Brienne actually signed for Atlético Ottawa in 2020, ahead of the Island Games in Prince Edward Island (and Atleti’s first campaign as an expansion team). He never actually played in any of Atleti’s seven games that year, but he got his foot in the door of the professional game.

Matteo de Brienne in 2020.

The following year, an immediate pro opportunity didn’t materialize, but de Brienne made an impact playing U SPORTS soccer for Carleton University, leading them to a national silver medal on home turf — alongside a now-fellow CPLer in Gabriel Bitar, and under the guidance of Ravens head coach Kwesi Loney, who has been an assistant coach for Atlético Ottawa since 2022 and will now be reunited with de Brienne.

De Brienne himself credits Loney, and his time playing for a Carleton side that was one of the best in the country at that point, with helping shape his entertaining style of football and allowing him to step into the professional game at Valour.

In Winnipeg, de Brienne took the next great leap of his career, becoming a more well-rounded player while being asked to play heavy minutes in an unfamiliar left-back position. He credits Phillip Dos Santos’ staff, and in particular captain-turned-assistant coach Daryl Fordyce, for allowing him to take the step from raw talent to fully-fledged CPL star.

For that reason, de Brienne will of course always have a special place in his heart for Valour. IG Field was home to some of his finest moments as a pro footballer, including that outrageous goal he scored to beat Forge FC last season:

“The fans supported me on and off the field, win, lose; for that I’m incredibly thankful,” de Brienne said of his time in Winnipeg. “The fans became more like a family to me in my two years there, so this decision was not an easy decision, and I’ll forever be thankful for the time given there.”

Now, though, the focus turns to Ottawa. De Brienne was on hand with Valour last September when Atleti had a club-record 7,044 fans at their final regular season match of 2023, and he remembers how special the atmosphere was. On that day, de Brienne helped Valour to a last-minute 1-0 win, but he’s hoping to help create some happier memories in the capital in 2024.

It’s unclear where exactly de Brienne might fit into head coach Carlos González’s tactical plan, but with his now-extensive experience as both a winger and a fullback, he’s confident this is the right move for him from a footballing sense as well.

“The profile they were showing me made my decision fairly easy, to join this group,” he added. “Looking at all the bits and pieces that are slowly coming together is making it look like this could be something very, very special next season. So for me, it was quite easy; I was able to sit down with my agent, sit down with Fernando [López], even speak to Carlos and really look over how I’ll progress as a player and really help the team at the same time.”

Photo Credit: Valour FC

The fact that de Brienne will now be playing pro football in his hometown, where his family can watch him play every week, excites him, but he also joked that there’s a little more pressure on him now, too — from his mom in particular, whom he says can be the toughest critic, especially when it comes to his trademark front flip goal celebration (which isn’t going anywhere, he says).

“Now I’m gonna have more eyes on me, and more criticism from my family,” de Brienne quipped. “Going home for dinner that night will be difficult, but I’m very excited for it.”

Certainly, the fans in Ottawa will likewise be excited to see a locally-raised star on the pitch in 2024 — even more so the first time he breaks out the acrobatics.