PHOTOS: Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography/Ottawa Fury FC
By Théo Gauthier
OTTAWA, CANADA—The Ottawa Fury earned their 12th clean sheet of the season Friday night at TD Place on their way to a 2-0 victory against their former NASL rivals Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The win was an important one for the Fury; going into Friday’s match, the two clubs were just outside the playoff picture and within one point of each other; their respective hunger for these three points was practically on par. The victory propelled the Fury to 7th in the USL Eastern Conference with 30 points and anchored the Rowdies to 12th on 26 points. The race is so tight right now that every Fury victory means there is a good chance they are vaulting over another team, or two.
When Joe Cole—the former England international who played for West Ham United, Chelsea and Liverpool in a storied career—looks back on this night, he’ll have a tale to tell. Who would have ever predicted that Cole would make his managerial debut in Ottawa, Canada and that his team would give up a goal after 24 seconds on a goalkeeping blunder that would make Loris Karius blush? That’s precisely what happened when Steevan Dos Santos slipped the ball to Tony Taylor at the top of the 18-yard box, who unleashed a left-footed rocket. Rowdies keeper Cody Mizell was in the perfect position to block the shot, but in trying to catch the ball let it slip through his fingers and cross the goal line.
The goal was the fastest goal in Fury history, beating last year’s strike in the Canadian Championship by Sito Seoane against FC Edmonton after 38 seconds. It’s going to take something special to wipe Tony Taylor’s name from the Fury’s record books. According to Fury defender Nana Attakora, the goal was also confirmation of a lesson some players have been eager to impart to Taylor: “We kept telling Tony ‘You’re working hard, just keep hitting it. We’re bound to get a bounce that goes our way.’” The Fury as a whole took the advice, peppering the Tampa goal with 15 shots at goal—well above their season average.
Besides their newfound appreciation for hitting the ball goalward, the Fury added another noticeable wrinkle to their arsenal. Since an early-season Cristian Portilla goal that was scored directly from one of his corner kicks, the Fury have kept the same corker kick routine in hopes of replicating this Olimpico. They’re good at it, dedicating a lot of bodies to crowd the keeper to limit his ability to snatch the ball out of the air. Unfortunately, it had become ineffective due to its predictability; any opposing team that did their homework knew exactly what was coming on Fury corner kicks. On Friday, the Fury switched it up. Alternating kick takers between Portilla and Kévin Oliveira, in-swinging and out-swinging corners, the Fury regained the element of surprise as they created a number of excellent scoring opportunities off ten corners. At one point, they won four corners in a row and caused all kinds of problems for Mizell.
Although the Fury’s second goal wouldn’t come off a corner kick, their confidence on set pieces appeared to transfer over to free kicks. In the 53rd minute, Oliveira delivered an inch-perfect free-kick cross into the box that was met on the volley by a dashing Attakora to make it 2-0. After the match, it was pointed out to Attakora that he looked quite comfortable in the opposing 18-yard box. His reply got some laughs from the assembled media: “I joke all the time with (my teammates) that if I was a striker, I’d be the leading goal scorer,” he said with a wry smile.
Going into the match, there was a lot of chatter in Fury circles about the threat from Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov, who had terrorised the Ottawa club in past encounters. The Bulgarian had scored four goals in his last five matches against the Fury but was rendered ineffective on Friday night. His touches were limited to the periphery of the field, outside of the danger zone where he has preyed in the past. He would only get one touch inside the 18-yard box before being pulled after 73 minutes.
The Fury saw the return of Thomas Meilleur-Giguère in the centre of defence, partnering with Attakora after missing last Saturday’s match through injury. The pair is particularly effective at clearing the ball out of any danger zone. When you add the increasing confidence of keeper Maxime Crépeau to come out and snuff out almost any threat lofted into his 18-yard box, it’s no surprise that the club is now tied for 2nd in USL in clean sheets with ten (the Pittsburgh Riverhounds lead with 13).
The joyous atmosphere surrounding TD Place after the Fury’s victory was undercut by Head Coach Nikola Popovic’s comments at halftime and in the post-match press conference with the media. The coach was visibly upset about something—but wouldn’t say what about—even though he went so far as to say: “There are a lot of things that are strange here and that sometimes makes me reflect (on) if I’m supposed to be here…if I’m going to continue here.” The Fury’s communications team later sought to clarify that his comments were due to frustration with the officiating and that his meaning may have been lost in translation. Look for a follow-up story from Ottawa Sports Network Sunday in which Popovic will offer a clarification in his own words following the Fury’s training session.
With the victory, the Fury are back above the red line for playoff contention. They sit in seventh place with 30 points. August will be an important month for the men in black and red. They have seven-and-a-half matches in the month (their suspended game with Atlanta was rescheduled for this coming Tuesday at 6 pm): four at home and four away. Only two of those matches come against teams that aren’t currently serious playoff contenders: Atlanta and Richmond.
Taking three points from the first match of the month brings the Fury’s points-per-game ratio to 1.43. In 2017’s Eastern conference, 1.4 points-per-game was the bar over which teams needed to be to make the playoffs, and that number is projected to be the same in 2018. The Fury is now performing at a clip that puts them only second to their 2015 season in which they went all the way to the NASL Championship match.
It’s a tight one, folks. The Fury, after starting the season without a win in their first six matches, now find themselves just over the minimum requirements to make the playoffs. Their trajectory is trending ever upwards, and optimists can even look at the standings and wonder about a home playoff appearance. Currently, the Fury is only four points behind Louisville City FC for that coveted fourth place ranking (LCFC have two matches in hand as of the time of this writing).
Popovic openly called for his team to improve their possession stats in his post-match comments. That’s a good indicator for the Fury; their leader not only wants to win, but he wants to win with attractive football, fulfilling a promise made to the fanbase in the pre-season. Can they pull it off? All signs point to yes.
- Word out of Montreal media circles is that Kyle Fisher, a young American defender who plays for the Impact but who’s been out with a broken tibia, will see some action with the Fury for a rehab stint. This type of arrangement worked out well for the Fury when Doneil Henry came over on a month-long loan back when the club were struggling with injuries in their back line, but doing so when things are clicking is a risky endeavour.
- Spoke to Azake Luboyera after the match in the player tunnel. His injury status? “I’m close, but not quite 100% yet.”
- On a few occasions, the Rowdies were able to find some space through the channels with smart runs and sharp passing. One such opportunity came in the first half, a chance which should have been put away by Tampa’s leading scorer Stefano Bonomo.
- A week’s rest did wonders for the Fury’s energy levels. Eddie Edward, in particular, seemed to have regained a previously lost gear.
- Cristian Portilla was not shy about shouting instructions to Onua Obasi over the course of the match. “OBASI! OBASI!” rang out a few times throughout the stadium, particularly on one occasion where the English left-back was almost caught-out on a quickly taken free kick by the Rowdies while he was getting a drink on the sideline.
Fury Man of the Match: Nana Attakora. No reason to disagree with the in-stadium choice. Attakora was his usual granite-like self at the heart of the Fury’s back-four, and added a fox-in-the-box goal to boot. The Fury looked especially good moving as a defensive unit at the moment. Two blocks of four when defending, moving in concert. Well-drilled and a confidence in each other’s position goes a long way to explain their current proficiency at preventing opponents from scoring.
- Sport can be special. I’ll let Fury Super Supporter Meagan Wiper explain:
- Once in a while, you get to know what the #FuryFamily hashtag REALLY means. It’s not often that an entire roster congratulates a supporter on the birth of his son, but the @OttawaFuryFC lads did just that for @SteveBailey1984 tonight – including one VERY happy keeper! #FuryFC 👶 pic.twitter.com/QpTyNWjErD
- Sport can be special. I’ll let Fury Super Supporter Meagan Wiper explain:
— Meagan Wiper (@MegW613) August 4, 2018