PHOTO: Martin Mendizabal
By Théo Gauthier
Another home win, another clean sheet.
The Ottawa Fury picked up a vital three points against the Richmond Kickers at TD Place on Wednesday night on a perfect night for soccer in the capital. Maxime Crépeau and the Fury picked up their 11th clean sheet of the season as Carl Haworth and Tony Taylor provided the goals they needed to climb to seventh in the USL Eastern Conference standings.
The Fury may have intended to play the 2018 season playing the Pep Guardiola way, with a lot of possession and imposing themselves on their opponents, but what’s emerged is a style more in line with the Catalan’s arch nemesis José Mourinho. Manchester United’s Portuguese manager would most likely approve of the Fury’s style in 2018, one in which you give the opponent as much of the ball as they want, then punch them in the mouth on the counter.
“We didn’t want the ball this game,” Fury Head Coach Nikola Popovic said in his post-match conference with reporters. The comment contrasted what Popovic had said on the sidelines in his halftime comments when he called for his team to get more possession in the second half. Granted, it’s an odd setup to ask a coach to outline his second-half strategy for the entire stadium to know, but it’s rare for a coach to belie his own words is such a stark manner. Not that Fury fans will complain if the purpose is to lead the opposition astray.
The Fury has a fun-to-watch holistic approach when defending. As pointed out by Graeme Ivory on Twitter, Maxime Crépeau is only three clean sheets away from tying Romuald Peiser’s Fury season record of 14. This, with 11 matches left in the season. And while Crépeau is the team’s clear front-runner for MVP so far this season, the Fury’s proclivity for shutting down opponents is a result of a willingness to defend as a team.
When the Fury’s opponents have possession, the men in black and red move like the best-choreographed ballets. The synchronicity is evident as the ten outfield players move in concert, setting up their lines of defence and moving as one. The Fury usually lures their opponents just past the halfway line before setting their forwards loose to attack the ball. The Fury’s midfielders then pounce on the unsettled ball-carriers, creating turnovers for the defence to sweep up. On Wednesday night, these interventions usually occurred closer to the flanks, as seen in the graph below.
Every player on the field has a role to play in this scenario, but Jamar Dixon and Cristian Portilla are the keys to dispossessing and recovering the ball. Once that work is done, the forwards usually get down the field as the midfield and defence figure out a way to get them the ball while the opponent scrambles to recover.
It’s that last part that’s the most difficult to execute, but there are further signs that the Fury is beginning to work out the safe’s combination on offence. Haworth’s goal on Wednesday night—his first since returning from injury—was scored on a free kick won by Kévin Oliveira just outside Richmond’s 18-yard box. The play that led to the foul originated with pressure near the halfway line when Thomas Meilleur-Giguère pressed the Richmond ball receiver into delivering a stray ball that fell to Dixon. The Ottawa-born midfielder then played a direct ball towards Tony Taylor, who played the first portion of the match as a classic #9 while Steevan Dos Santos started the match on the substitutes bench. The ball had to be hurriedly headed out of danger by the Kickers defence and fell to Oliveira’s foot in a dangerous area, forcing the foul from Braeden Troyer.
Haworth, back in the starting lineup following an absence due to injury, pulled rank and took the free kick. Once struck the ball seemed to hang in the air for a moment, clearing the wall and past Kickers keeper Trevor Spangenberg before settling into the bottom of the goal at the near post. Once the ball crossed the line, the Fury captain calmly strolled over to the fans on the south side of the stadium and put out his hands as if asking: “Did you miss me?”
The Fury had an early lead, and as we’ve seen throughout the season, falling behind to the Ottawa squad can mean a long night for the opposition.
That tendency would bear out as the Fury continued to defend as a unit and Crépeau snuffed any ball crossed into his 18-yard box. The Fury would add a goal to seal the win in the 84th minute, and you could call this one a Steevan Dos Santos Special. Defending a corner kick, the Cape Verdean headed the ball out of danger and chased his clearance to the touchline. His presence unsettled Kickers defender Brandon Eaton just enough so that his pass back to Spangenberg was light on power. Dos Santos turned on the jets and collected the ball, turned towards the middle of the pitch and, with Spangenberg doing the only thing he could in trying to close him down, slid the ball into the path of an onrushing Tony Taylor. The American caused Fury supporters hearts to skip a beat as he put his shot into the open net off the underside of the bar and in.
It was a big win for the Fury, in that Richmond was a team ripe for the picking, coming into the match with only 18 points and riding a four-match losing streak. The Fury didn’t take Richmond lightly and was rewarded with the three points they needed to continue their chase for their first playoff game since 2015. After the match, Popovic was quick to point out that there are no easy wins in USL: “A very important win against a team who may look deceiving because they are on the bottom of the table. People may think that this was an easy team (to beat), but we scouted this team, and we knew their strengths. We were able to control them most of the time, and we were very happy to get these three points.”
Next up is a clash Saturday afternoon at home against Indy Eleven, a former NASL rival who also won on Wednesday night. Indy sits in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Fury with two matches in hand. In their last match, the Fury came away 1-0 winners at Lucas Oil Stadium. Saturday’s match is one of only two home matches left in August for the Fury, before they embark on (another) gruelling road trip that won’t see them at TD Place until September 30th.
- The conditions at kickoff were absolutely perfect for soccer. Sadly, the word did not seem to get through to the general population that there was a match. Only 3,535 fans made it to the stadium. The Fury’s attendance is trending downward overall, but Wednesday night’s match represents a worrying sign of apathy: there were no competing events in the city, the weather was gorgeous, the team is right in the thick of a playoff race. Ottawa is a soccer town; we’ve seen this repeatedly for major tournaments and some one-offs, including the Fury’s playoff run in 2015. What needs to happen for the Fury to draw these fans back to TD Place?
- Overheard in the media room post-match: “If a free kick like that one (Haworth’s goal) had been sent toward Crépeau, it’s likely he wouldn’t just have saved it, he would have caught it.” Crépeau puts on a positional clinic every time he suits up for the Fury, and his command of the 18-yard box is masterful.
- New Fury signing Daniel Kinumbe was rewarded for his bright start coming off the bench in Saturday’s loss to Nashville with his first start as a professional. He and Haworth swapped wings a few times in the first half, which appeared to cause some problems for the Kickers defence. Although less impressive than on Saturday, the Sherbrooke native has the tools to excel.
- Maxime Crépeau, unable to contain his joy, ran the length of the field to congratulate Tony Taylor and Steevan Dos Santos on their late goal.
- Chris Manella was brought on in the 78th minute with a clear purpose: disrupt, disrupt and add a healthy dose of disruption. He disrupted, putting in a tireless shift and getting after the ball like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit.
- Fury Man of the Match: Tony Taylor. His goal near the end of the match may have been the cherry on top, but he was also the sundae. Taylor worked hard throughout the match as the Fury’s #9 (before Dos Santos entered), and was also key in defending. Cristian Portilla also made his mark in patrolling the field laterally, breaking up a number of Kickers attacks and maintaining possession for the Fury.