PHOTOS: Martin Mendizabal / Instagram: martin_gonzalesm12
By Théo Gauthier
On what can only described as a perfect night for soccer, the Ottawa Fury fell a goal down early on in the first leg of their semifinal matchup in the Canadian Championship against provincial rivals Toronto FC and fell just short of equalising on Wednesday night at TD Place.
The win by Toronto FC means they will take a one-goal advantage into the second leg at BMO Field in the Queen City on Wednesday. The away goal by TFC— generally of great significance in the event of a draw after the full 180 minutes of the tie—is now rendered moot. The most straightforward way for the Fury to win the two-legged affair is to score at least twice in Toronto.
The Fury will feel like the opportunity to get a jump on TFC will have slipped through their fingers. The Toronto club, in the midst of a nightmarish MLS season plagued by injuries and a lack of positive results, fielded an underpowered team to take on their lower-division adversary; no Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley in this one. The lineup put forth by TFC Head Coach Greg Vanney was missing many of their stars, but it wasn’t a retread of their USL-affiliate team TFC II either. Although a few players from that team did make the starting eleven, well-known first-teamers like Jonathan Osorio, Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta would be joined through substitutions by Justin Morrow and Marco Delgado. In all, 15 Canadians would see the pitch; a beautiful tribute to the national championship by both head coaches.
Toronto’s (first) goal came in only the fifth minute of play through the creativity and guile of Canadian prospect Ryan Telfer. Seemingly boxed into the corner by Eddie Edward and Tony Taylor, Telfer managed to free himself with a tidy bit of skill and feed the ball to the top of the 18-yard box to TFC and Canadian men’s national team star Jonathan Osorio. The Toronto native was able to unleash a shot which appeared to catch Fury keeper Maxime Crépeau leaning the wrong way, and the ball sneaked past his outstretched hand to find the back of the net. “He got all of it,” Crépeau explained in his post-match comments. “Osorio pretends to open his hips to shoot, closes them and quickly fires a shot. I had an obstructed view as one of our defenders tried to close him down, and I saw it late. It happens.”
The first half had its fair share of flashpoints on the pitch, but the real sparks started to fly when Onua Obasi went in with a meaty tackle on Osorio. The nature of the tackle—two-footed, from behind with studs showing—left the home fans holding their breath as referee Silvio Petrescu reached for his pocket. To their relief, the colour was yellow; a reprieve for the English left-back.
The match was played at a blistering pace, a welcome change for Fury supporters who have watched the home team slog through the recent heat wave. The recent string of afternoon matches played under the oppressive Ottawa Valley heat and humidity had slowed the pace down considerably, but Wednesday night’s cup match was played under ideal conditions for soccer. Both teams took advantage by playing expansive football that was a delight to the eyes.
The closer the match approached the final whistle, the more the Fury pushed for an equaliser, leading to exciting goalmouth scrambles. The Fury threw the kitchen sink at TFC, and everything seemed to be happening—except for the Fury finding the back of the net. This, despite Fury Head Coach Nikola Popovic using two substitutions to inject more offence into his squad; Daniel Haber coming on for Adonijah Reid, and Cristian Portilla being inserted for Chris Mannella.
After the match, Popovic was disappointed about the result but optimistic about the second leg based on how the match went: “To be honest it was important for us not to suffer a goal,” he said. “I think (after the goal) the match was even. I can’t say that one team was dominating the other. It was a very close game.”
Popovic believes that the result of the two-legged series is still very much in play: “One of the core values we have in this culture is belief. I think after what we saw today, we will fight until the last second. It allows us to dream that it’s possible for us to go there and score a goal and fight to get to the Final.”
Unfortunately, events on the field were temporarily overshadowed by disturbances off it. In the northwest section of the stadium reserved for a group of about 30 travelling fans from Toronto, flares were ignited, and smoke began to form a cloud. Up to that point, rules were being broken but nothing too uncommon in soccer stadiums throughout the world. That’s when things took a turn towards the unruly. One of the fans threw a flare onto the TD Place pitch, which ignited the plastic FieldTurf. As a member of the stadium’s security team retrieved the pyrotechnic device and his colleagues closed in on the section, flames started emanating from the section as a large banner brought in by the supporters caught fire.
That’s when an explosion shook the building.
It’s still unclear what caused it, but as Petrescu brought the match to a halt, thoughts immediately raced back to the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks which rocked the Stade de France during a match between France and Germany. Thankfully, the concussive nature of the blast appears to have been artificial, and no one was physically harmed. The away fans scurried away from the scene and faded into the Ottawa night, leaving security staff to deal with the remaining flames and damage to the section. A police investigation has been launched. Charges may come to be laid, but karmic justice may well be sufficient; they tried to draw attention to themselves as tough and edgy anarchists, yet came off looking like cowardly buffoons who accidentally lit their own banner on fire and who fled the scene instead of dealing with the consequences of their actions.
The behaviour of this select group of wanna-be hooligans has to be viewed as a setback for Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, who have spent the first five seasons of the Fury’s existence fostering a family-friendly environment. A statement from the club following the match described the smoke and flames as appearing “to be more serious than they were”. That seems to be accurate, notwithstanding the physical damage to the section.
The incident is also a setback for supporter culture in this country: any benefit of the doubt granted to supporters’ groups across Canada will now have evaporated. A lot of fantastic people have worked hard for years to establish trust and credibility with club officials and municipal politicians for the privilege to be a little rowdier than most match-goers. In the future, they will be able to point the finger at those select few TFC fans for destroying the fruits of those efforts.
The Fury also stated that “Public safety is of paramount importance and TD Place will review this incident and security policies to determine how they might be modified to prevent such incidents in the future.” As the Canadian Championship continues to grow—the competition will expand from its current six-team format to about 13 in 2019 with the addition of the Canadian Premier League clubs— travelling support is bound to increase. It is incumbent on stadium staff to be ready for that tiny sliver of the soccer demographic whose intentions are less-than-pure.
In his post-match comments, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney was apologetic about the incident: “On behalf of our club…we are embarrassed about the incident in the stands. It will be looked at by the match commissioner, and they will handle it accordingly. But from a club perspective and the team side, it just turned into an embarrassing scene, so we apologise.”
Moving onto the footballing side of the evening, Vanney confirmed that his club’s troubles this season did not affect their commitment to defending their Canadian Championship crown: “We are where we are in terms of the (MLS) season, with the injuries and everything. We were…maybe a couple of penalty kicks away from winning the (CONCACAF) Champions League for the first time (for a non-Mexican club). That (remains) an ambition we have as a club, and our way into that event is to win the Canadian championship.”
The Fury go into Wednesday’s match with a one-goal deficit. To win, they need to score at least one goal and go to penalties, or score two in regulation time. In both these scenarios they will have to hold Toronto FC and its stable of thoroughbreds off the scoresheet or hope to win a goal-fest. No one who’s watched cup competitions before will doubt the possibility of these scenarios, but the road to the Canadian Championship final against Montreal or Vancouver is a challenging one for the Ottawa Fury.
- Toronto FC has a tough road match coming up in Chicago on Saturday before hosting the Fury on Wednesday in the return fixture of the semifinal.
- For their part, the Fury will be hosting one of their rivals for a playoff spot in the USL’s Eastern Conference, Nashville SC. The team from the Music City currently hold a three-point advantage over the Fury, although they’ve played an extra match up to this point in the season.
- In the other semifinal first-leg match, the Montreal Impact defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 at Saputo stadium in Montreal. The return leg is scheduled for Wednesday night at BC Place in Vancouver.
- The Fury seemed to have an extra spring in their step in pre-game warmups; maybe a sense of the occasion, but it can most likely be attributed to the 10-degree drop on the thermometer.
- Two Fury players were facing the club in which they developed: Nana Attakora and Chris Mannella.
- Let’s not forget to point out TFC keeper Clint Irwin’s return to the city. Way back when, he used to be the starting keeper for Capital City FC. “It’s always a little nostalgic. When I was here this stadium was still under construction but we were training here. Our pre-season was actually running the ramps up and down the stairs so it’s cool to see it now. It’s a great stadium. They have good support and it’s always nice to see some some faces behind the goal and say ‘What’s up?’ to them. I always enjoy playing here.”
- Spare a thought for the security personnel who ran into the blazing away section last night, only to be subjected to an explosion. Thankfully no one was physically hurt, but I hope they will receive mental health support if needed.
- Fury Man of the Match: Kévin Oliveira. The Cape Verdean found the range with his long-distance deliveries on Wednesday, creating multiple scoring opportunities. His runs between TFC’s defensive lines caused the Torontonians problems all night. He rose to the occasion and played his best match of the season. Shoutout to Chris Mannella who, before being substituted, patrolled the space between the Fury defence and midfield. Excellent performance.