PHOTOS: Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography/Ottawa Fury FC
By Théo Gauthier
The Ottawa Fury are in a playoff position and appear to only be picking up steam.
However, despite yet another strong performance by the men in black and red on Saturday night at TD Place, the narrative could have been a much different one.
When referee Juan Márquez pointed to the spot for a Nana Attakora handball in the 81st minute of the Fury’s match against fellow playoff hopefuls Nashville SC, it looked like the home team was going to drop three critical points. A hush fell over the crowd, and the Fury players’ heads and shoulders dropped as the potential of a hard-fought 0-0 draw seemed likely to become a heartbreaking 1-0 loss.
But then, something unusual happened. As Nashville striker Alan Winn stepped up to take the penalty and Márquez blew his whistle, the home crowd started to boo—subtly at first— but slowly lifting to a crescendo as Winn completed his run up and struck the ball. We’ll never know whether he heard the loud boos raining down on him or not, but for a fleeting moment, the noise from the home crowd felt like a tangible thing. It felt like a factor. That’s when Winn smashed the ball off Maxime Crépeau’s crossbar and back into play. The crowd were prevented from celebrating Winn’s miss too enthusiastically as the ball careened this way and that inside the Fury’s 18-yard box until Onua Obasi and Chris Mannella combined to finally clear the ball from danger.
The crowd were finally free to roar—and they did—as midfielder Kévin Oliveira, without a doubt the Man of the Match, latched onto the clearance and rushed upfield, supported by three Fury attackers. The play fizzled out, but the energy that was injected into the Fury players and their home crowd at that point in the match would not dissipate. Like a cowboy corraling a young bull, the Fury jumped onto that energy and rode it to a 2-0 win and in the process earned an invaluable three points in the USL’s Eastern Conference table.
Up until the penalty was given, the Fury and Nashville had traded chances by adopting a direct approach. The Fury tried to maximise the speed on their wings and attacked through the flanks, while Nashville opted to go through the middle of the pitch. Both sides found space with this approach, which made for an engaging spectacle.
The quality of soccer on display was delightful, as Fury Head Coach Nikola Popovic’s system continues to cement itself with this crop of players. After the match, Popovic was eager to explain—as he has done at regular intervals during his team’s rise in the standings following a challenging first month of the season—the volume of work that was needed to change the Fury’s culture: “There is a new general manager. There is a new coach. New players. This is a change of a lot of things in this club that we started from zero—perhaps below zero. And it’s going to take time.”
Following the dramatic late penalty miss by Nashville SC, the Fury seized on the momentum swing by throwing themselves into their attacks. The Fury got another break when Bradley Bourgeois, one of Nashville’s centre-backs, suffered a hamstring injury and couldn’t continue. Nashville Head Coach Gary Smith, having already used his three substitutions, was forced to watch as his squad carried on with ten men on the pitch.
The Fury would find the breakthrough in the first minute of stoppage time when Obasi ventured up the left flank with the ball and put in a cross to Jimmy-Shammar Sanon deep inside Nashville’s 18-yard box. Sanon controlled, turned and played a ball back to the onrushing Tony Taylor who made no mistake and buried a left-footed shot past Nashville keeper Matt Pickens. It was the second time in as many matches that the Fury took the lead late in a league game off a Tony Taylor strike; the Panamanian-American is developing a taste for the dramatic.
Shortly thereafter, in what looked like an accidental high foot to Taylor’s chest reminiscent of Nigel de Jong’s still-unpenalised kick during the 2010 World Cup Final, Nashville’s London Woodberry would collect his second yellow card and be sent off. This left the Fury facing only nine men on the pitch, and they would capitalise just before the final whistle.
The play started in Fury territory with Crépeau launching a ball near the Nashville 18-yard box. Nashville defender Justin Davis collected it, but Sanon was in the vicinity and put just the right amount of pressure on the former Minnesota United FC man to make him squib his pass, which instead trickled out to Oliveira. The Fury midfielder rode out a challenge from Matt LaGrassa, took a few strides forward and unleashed a cannon of a shot into the top of Nashville’s goal to seal the victory.
On both goals, the celebration near the Fury bench was indicative of the euphoria of a team that has struggled together, only to become stronger. It was a celebration of the principles Nikola Popovic and General Manager Julian de Guzman have been so adamant would bear fruit, and the crowd was right there with them, high-fiving in the stands and expressing their joy through loud cheering.
After the match, Oliveira outlined what it’s been like to get to this high point in the season: “It’s all about the trusting in the process. We trust in the coach. We do what we have to do, and now we’re putting it out on the pitch. Our team looks stronger, we understand each other more, so things come naturally now.”
Oliveira has experienced a lot of team success in his past couple of years and is determined to continue down that path with the Fury. “You see that now we are playing well,” he says. “We have more fans, and they are enjoying the game. They are enjoying how we’re playing now. I’ve been to two finals in the USL and this year my mind (is set) to win everything. I came here to win. I believe in my teammates, and they believe in each other.”
After the latest stretch of matches, it appears the Fury are also making believers out of the fans at TD Place.
The Fury travel to Toronto on Wednesday for the second leg of the Canadian Championship semifinal against Toronto before returning to Ottawa for a Saturday afternoon match against another Eastern Conference playoff contender in Louisville City FC.
- Fury supporters had some extra competition to make their voices heard Saturday night, as RebelFest unfolded over the hillside at Lansdowne. Perhaps the strategy was to distract the men from the Music City with some good old rock & roll instead of country music?
- Popovic handed Daniel Haber his first start since joining the Fury a few weeks ago. “We’ve barely had any practice time because the team has just been playing so many games that all the chemistry that you’re seeing is just developing on the field,” he says about his inclusion in a lineup that’s been playing twice a week since he arrived. “They’ll learn my tendencies, and I’ll learn their tendencies, and we’ll be creating more chances. But I think we’re off to a good start.”
- Another familiar face made an appearance at TD Place on Saturday night as Tucker Hume—who scored three goals in 23 appearances for the club last season—came on as a Nashville substitute in the 60th minute.
- The Fury announced a friendly against the Montreal Impact on September 7th as part of a new annual endeavour called the CapCity Cup. The press released describes it as: “The CapCity Cup is an opportunity to show appreciation to teams’ that visit us and create a new excitement for fans that get to see these high-level teams play. It becomes something to look forward to every year, to have a big quality opponent come here and play against the Ottawa Fury FC.”
- Maxime Crépeau now leads the USL with nine clean sheets this season, tied with Pittsburgh’s Daniel Lynd and Nashville’s Matt Pickens.
- Fury Man of the Match: Kévin Oliveira. The Cape Verdean earns his second nod in as many matches, and for good reason. Oliveira—and his teammates around him—are learning how to capitalise on his ball control and incisive runs. His free kicks and shots from distance have reached the highest level of effectiveness all season, and his goal on Saturday night showcased his exceptional technical ability.
- Honourable mentions:
- Cristian Portilla was outstanding in controlling the pace of the game and boy, can that man distribute the ball. It had to be a tough call to start him over Chris Mannella, but it turned out to be the right one.
- The signing of Nana Attakora isn’t one that gets a lot of attention, but his strength in the centre of the Fury’s defence is too-often overlooked. The Canadian international made 14 clearances on Saturday night, many of them made possible by the contortion of his body in unnatural ways and with a Nashville attacker ready to pounce on the other side of him.