‘You know the quality is there’: Amer Didić adding muscle & defensive acumen to revamped Atlético Ottawa

Atlético Ottawa’s dream off-season had one final surprise in store this week, as the club revealed that towering centre-back Amer Didić has opted to join the list of Canadian Premier League stars seeking to bring a trophy to the capital in 2024.

Didić, a 6-4 defender with 101 games of CPL experience, is just the latest highly sought-after free agent to move his talents within the league to Ottawa this year. He’s the 10th new addition at the club for this season, but he may well be one of the most impactful.

The 29-year-old has been one of the most reliable players in the league over its entire history, playing over 2,000 minutes in each of the last three years. Last season, Didić led the CPL in aerial duels won with 82, which was a full 18 more than anybody else in the league, and he also led the whole league in headed shots with 16. He’s more than just his height though; Didić is known for his composure on the ball, and his ability to pick out a long-distance pass all the way out to a winger on the opposite side of the pitch.

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Few defenders in Canada are as complete a package as Didić, with his physical attributes complemented by excellent defensive vision and timing and strong ball skills. It’s that skillset that earned him two Canadian men’s national team caps in 2020 as an FC Edmonton player, and he could well get back into that conversation now.

Prior to adding Didić, the backline could’ve been a point of vulnerability for this Ottawa side as it assembles what one might call a CPL superteam (on paper, at least). They’ve added over 300 games of CPL experience, and the newcomers have a combined 38 goals and 26 assists in this league. Until now, though, they hadn’t necessarily addressed the defence, which lost Diego Espejo, Miguel Acosta, Macdonald Niba and Karl Ouimette from last season’s group.

Ottawa did sign Jonathan Grant from York United, but unfortunately his ACL tear from early preseason will keep him out of the team all year. Luke Singh, meanwhile, has returned to Atleti on loan from Toronto FC again, so he’ll be a major part of the defence, as will Ottawa-born youngster Tyr Walker.

Amer Didic. (Photo: Sheldon Mack/Pacific FC)

It’s Didić, however, who will be the centrepiece there. That said, his arrival in Ottawa was far from a given thing, even a couple of weeks ago.

He chose to leave Pacific FC at the end of 2023 in search of a new challenge, but Atlético Ottawa — or the CPL at all for that matter — wasn’t necessarily his only option. Didić had plenty of interest from clubs, and it’s rumoured he came close to a move to Norway, but for a brief period he wasn’t even sure he wanted to sign anywhere.

“It’s been a different off-season for me in all aspects, in terms of life, soccer; not many people know, even in the coaching staff, it wasn’t really clear to me if I wanted to even continue playing,” Didić told earlier this week. “Initially it was a big thought, it was a whirlwind, it was ‘What do I want to do with my life?’, with my fiancé now.”

In the end, though, he couldn’t say goodbye to the game just yet — especially not when presented with an opportunity like Ottawa.

“I love soccer, and I can’t even imagine my life right now [without it],” he said. “I’m feeling so good physically … It’s exciting, [Atlético Ottawa] has great ambitions this year in the players they’ve brought in and adjustments they’ve made, coming in from sixth place. Playoffs is huge this year, and obviously now winning is important, in all aspects.”

Much like Ottawa as a club, Didić individually is motivated this year to get to the top of the table. He played five CPL playoff matches with Pacific over his two years there, but fell short of lifting his first career trophy. Atleti, meanwhile, fell short of the playoffs in 2023 after winning the regular season in 2022 and getting to the CPL Final.

Amer DIdic and Manny Aparicio with Pacific. (Photo: Sheldon Mack/Pacific FC)

Having now trained with Ottawa for a few weeks, joining them on their preseason trip to Mexico, Didić said he’s starting to get a feel for the group and adapting to Carlos González’s style of coaching. One thing that’s helping him adjust, however, is that he’s not going through it alone.

Manny Aparicio, Didić’s teammate the last two years in Pacific and a close friend, is another CPL star who has made the move to the nation’s capital.

“I love Manny as a player and as a person, we’re really close,” Didić said. “He was actually a big driving factor with all this as well. There’s so many guys out there that I’ve played against over the years and you know the quality is there, you know what you’re going to have, you know what you’re going to get. Especially with the midfield, playing out of the back as a centre-back and seeing those guys with technical ability.”

With so much quality in the squad, Ottawa feel like a club ready to return to contention, but they know that nothing is proven until they get on a pitch in the real season. Still, excitement continues to build around the capital, both in and outside of the team’s dressing room.

Didić, like many of his new teammates, is dreaming of lifting a trophy in the fall. If his dream comes true, there’s no doubt he will have played a key role in getting there.