Photo credit: Freestyle Photography
By Théo Gauthier
April 25, 2018
Following a week that saw them overcome a grounded flight, a 13-hour bus trip back from Pittsburgh, and being relegated back to a small, covered training facility due to the ice event suffered by the city last week, the Ottawa Fury fought back from a goal down to earn their first point of the USL season in a 1-1 draw against North Carolina FC.
The crowd of 6,137 were sent home smiling after Cristian Portilla scored an 85th minute Olimpico that was the culmination of many of the principles head coach Nikola Popovic has tried to instill in his new team. The Fury finally looked something akin to what has been advertised up to this point; a squad steeped in possession football, confident in their passing and unafraid to use the space given to them.
As anticipated, the key to making this system tick is to have a defensive midfielder in the mould of Sergio Busquets, or Fernandinho, or someone intimately familiar to Fury fans: Richie Ryan. On Saturday, it was easy to pick out the Fury’s most influential starter: Cristian Portilla. The Spaniard, who won the NASL Championship last season with the San Francisco Deltas, was a calming presence throughout the match and set the tone with his accurate passing. The following chalkboard tells the story of his afternoon regarding successful passing:
That’s not a lot of red.
Obviously, Portilla’s most impactful action on the afternoon was his 85th-minute goal coming straight from his corner kick. There was some discussion on whether Portilla should get credit for the goal or if NCFC keeper Alex Tambakis steered the ball into his own goal, but in the end, the Fury general ended up on the scoresheet. Olimpico! The goal sent the Fury fans into a frenzy, particularly since the goal was scored in front of the Supporters Section. The explosion of elation on that scale are beautiful moments in any sport. The support did not go unnoticed by Popovic: “My first game here at home. I’m amazed by how the public was active; they were really our extra player on the field.”
There were more than a few murmurs from Fury supporters about their captain starting from the bench for the second straight match. There are those who argue that the team’s captain, and a fan favourite, should be an automatic selection in the starting eleven. One thing is undeniable: from the moment Haworth was inserted into the match in the 56th minute he was the best player on the pitch. His energy level was beyond anything seen from him so far this season, and his commitment to dogging the NCFC defence seemed to unnerve them. His presence gave the Fury more time with the ball and indirectly led to the Fury goal.
When asked about Haworth, Head Coach Nikola Popovic stood firm on his decision. “As I always say, there is no ‘starting eleven’. We have to see who is performing well during the week. He (Haworth) is a player like all the others. He’s started, he’s been on the bench, perhaps he starts the next game.”
The Fury midfield, minus Portilla, is still an area of concern for Popovic. As he said in his post-match comments: “Inconsistency. We weren’t able to find the midfielders like we want, so we lost a lot of balls. It’s unbelievable: anytime that anybody comes to our goal, they score a goal.” During the first half especially, the area of the field where a team’s midfielders would normally be found was left vacant. Everyone but the central defenders and Portilla were hugging the wings, leaving the team structure looking hollow. It was at times easy for NCFC to take the ball from their keeper to the offensive third through the centre of the field unchallenged. Something to look for in future matches.
The Fury got themselves a point; they’re on the board. They got it by showing hints of what they could become, given enough time and patience. The fans finally got to see some of what’s been advertised. They will hope that improvement continues.
- Popovic was clear that what he saw was better, but left him wanting more: “We are getting a little bit more consistent, but we are still very far away from the way I want our team to play. We are late.”
- That sentiment was echoed by defender Colin Falvey: “It’s gonna take some time for us to really understand the system exactly how we want to and exactly how the coaching staff want us to. It’s very demanding at times.”
- Impressive match for Adonijah Reid. He had many successful dribbles and looked aggressive on the ball. NCFC defender Peabo Doue will be having nightmares about Reid blowing past him. Is it too early to call it the Reid-Falvey Expressway? It felt like every long ball from Falvey somehow found Reid on the sprint. Reid needs to work on ensuring that his team keep the ball, but the tools are all there.
- A Fury debut for Gabriel Wiethaeuper-Balbinotti, who came on as a sub in the 84th minute (yes, I totally had to copy/paste his name).
- Kevin Oliveira was dangerous on free kicks—his free-kick led to the winning corner kick—but his performance was uneven. He will need to be more consistent if the Fury is to improve.
- Ran into General Manager Julian de Guzman in the elevator after the match, and got his hot-take: “A better second half, but we shouldn’t wait for our opponent to score like we did. I’d like for us to go after it a little more.”
- Midfielder Christian Portilla on if he had ever scored an Olimpico before Saturday: “Yes! I did it last year with San Francisco against Indy Eleven, and it was also in the 85th minute!” A mischievous grin washed over his face as he was reminded that it was against new teammate Colin Falvey’s team. “Oh yes, I remember.”
- The Fury have two home matches in the coming week. This Saturday at 2pm against one of the league’s best teams in FC Cincinnati, as well as their annual School Day match on Tuesday at 10:30 against New York Red Bull II.
- As we were going to press, the Fury signed former Toronto FC and West Ham United defender Doneil Henry from Vancouver Whitecaps FC on a month-long loan. Some cover for the hobbling defensive core, and an opportunity for Henry to get some playing time, which has been hard for him to come by of late.
- Man of the Match: Carl Haworth. Could easily have been Portilla or Falvey, but the Fury captain came off the bench and sent a jolt of electricity through the squad with his energy and passion. It changed the character of the match. Super-sub in the making?