PHOTOS: Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography/Ottawa Fury FC
By Théo Gauthier
Under a relentless July sun, the Ottawa Fury kicked off a string of five consecutive home matches by falling 1-0 to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at TD Place on Sunday afternoon.
The Riverhounds who, with the win, retain second place in the Eastern Conference by earning all three points from Sunday’s encounter, did not hide their intentions by lining up with five defenders across the back. It’s a strategy that has worked wonders for Head Coach Bob Lilley and his charges this season; the Riverhounds lead the USL with only seven goals conceded in league play. It may be a recipe for success, but the aftertaste bears a hint of boredom for anyone with a refined palate.
Most of the match was bogged down in the middle third, as the Fury’s defensive pedigree prevented the Riverhounds from breaking through in open play. It took a series of mistakes and blown coverages from Nikola Popovic’s men for the Riverhounds to make a dent in the scoreboard.
The genesis of the Riverhounds goal came when the Fury’s Adonijah Reid misplayed a pass in the middle of the field, handing possession over to his opponent. The Riverhounds immediately moved as a unit down the field, eventually forcing a corner from right back Eddie Edward. On the ensuing set play, the Riverhounds Christiano François delivered a cross to the spot that causes the most damage on corners, at a point almost precisely between the goal line and the penalty spot. The ball appeared laser-guided to Riverhounds centre-back Joseph Greenspan’s forehead, and he didn’t let the great service down with a searing header destined for the back of Maxime Crépeau’s goal. However, as he’s been doing all season, the man who many see as Canada’s future number one keeper leapt through the air and denied Greenspan his first professional goal. The ball was cleared out of the Ottawa box and eventually made its way back to François, who lofted the ball back into the danger zone. The Haitian’s cross had just enough arc on it to miss avoid a leaping Onua Obasi, instead falling to the Riverhounds’ Todd Pratzner, who headed the ball back to the edge of the six-yard box, where it was blasted into the goal by centre-back Hugh Roberts.
It was the kind of goal this edition of the Fury doesn’t usually concede, as Crépeau would acknowledge after the match: “We have to be better on set plays. The save came off a free header in the box; we have to be marking better than that. We know Pittsburgh is really good on the second wave of attack from set plays, and that’s what happened. They sent a ball to the far post, it got redirected to the middle, and we lost the dual to the ball.” From there, he knew things would only get more difficult: “We know Pittsburgh’s style. They won’t be coming at you for 90 minutes; they pick their spots and then sit on their lead.”
And that’s exactly how it played out. It’s been well-documented how the Fury has had difficulty this season when given a healthy dose of possession, and their 50.3% rate in this match was one of the highest in their 19 matches played. However, their failure to pose much threat to the Riverhounds’ goal is as much a testament to how difficult it is to break them down as it is to the Fury’s offensive woes.
On this day, the Fury’s bugaboo was stray passes; anytime something positive developed, it seemed possession was wasted on an easy-to-intercept pass. The Fury’s playmakers, Kévin Oliveira and Jamar Dixon, had a particularly rough day in finding their range in the passing department. Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, who’s been a revelation this season, also seemed to have an off-day. The Fury have struggled to find the back of the net most of the season, netting a league-low 15 goals in league play. On a day when they were facing the league’s best defence, every missed pass was amplified.
The Fury have played eight matches in 26 days, and today their tired legs seemed to buckle under the 31-degree heat. To their credit, it was the first hint of fatigue shown by the Fury during this busy stretch of matches. Following the match, Popovic was visibly upset about the scheduling of the match in the middle of a July afternoon: “I don’t know who scheduled this game. It wasn’t me, for sure it wasn’t (Fury General Manager) Julian (de Guzman), but somebody made this schedule and put this game at 1 pm in the afternoon. This is absolutely crazy. Our players fought like heroes, but they are completely exhausted.” Despite their tired legs, the Fury dug deep and found some gas left in the tank in the closing moments, mounting an impressive attack and laying siege to the Riverhounds goal. Alas for the Fury and their supporters, a tying goal was not in the cards.
Thankfully for Popovic, the comforts of home and a six-day recovery cycle should allow his squad to recuperate and get some traction in the upper half of the Eastern Conference table. The Fury currently sit in 12th place with 21 points, which puts them only four points out of a playoff spot. According to Popovic, there’s some help on the way: “We have the opening window of transfers, we will have to try to find a player to replace (injured winger Maxim Tissot). We are looking at a lot of players, and we have to find the right ones.” As was previously reported by Ottawa Sports Network, de Guzman and Popovic are looking to replace some players leftover from the Dalglish era with new ones who will arrive in Ottawa having been sold on the team’s new philosophy.
The injection of new blood is always an exciting time for supporters, and the hope among many of them is for the Fury to find a player who can improve their goalscoring capabilities. This would make sense since the Fury’s defensive proficiency is more than adequate. The Fury need goals, and the transfer market might be able to alleviate that concern.
On Sunday, the Fury faced a Pittsburgh team intent on getting one point; the Riverhounds made their chance count and left town with three. In the end, the match could be seen as a hangover from one of the craziest travel schedules the club has ever seen, played under challenging conditions. As with most hangovers, some rest and a hearty breakfast—Penn FC on Saturday—is just what the doctor ordered.
- Didn’t take much time for Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to make its way into the soccer consciousness; on Sunday, many fans at TD Place were making the box signal with their hands on close calls.
- No rest for the weary. When asked for his pick to win the World Cup, Popovic admitted to having missed most of the tournament: “I would tell you I haven’t even seen a whole game. We’ve been so busy…” As he left the media room, he did say he thought France was his pick.
- Former Fury forward Dennis Chin made an appearance, subbing into the match in the 85th minute.
- Fury Man of the Match: Tony Taylor. The Panamanian has a good run of form recently, and that continued on Sunday as he tried to run the Pittsburgh defence into the ground. He couldn’t find that elusive first USL goal, but his work rate and ability to beat defenders did not go unnoticed.