By Théo Gauthier
March 18, 2018
The Ottawa Fury suffered a loss in their opening match of the season on Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the Independence thumped Nikola Popovic’s men 4-1.
Early in the first half, it was clear that Popovic’s system is well on its way to being integrated. Keeping the ball on the ground was the order of the day, and on this count the players executed well early on. Considering how depleted the defensive corps stood due to injury, it was surprising to see the system be most effective when it was initiating a move from from the back. Colin Falvey was confirmed as the ball handler in the Fury’s back line; any time he was open the ball would be returned to him.
Using this formula, the Fury dominated possession for the first 20 minutes as they pressed high and forced their opponents to turn over the ball. The Independence players seemed content to sit back and strike forward on the counter when they did manage to retain the ball. Be prepared to see this happening all season if the Fury keep to this system—which they have vowed to do. How well the Fury learn to cope with the counter attacks of their opposition will go a long way to determine what they make of the 2018 campaign.
After the first 20 minutes, the Independence seemed to figure out how to reverse the pressure on the Fury. By putting both its strikers on Chris Mannella, the newly-signed Fury man playing in the crucial defensive midfield position, they were able to sow uncertainty in the Fury game plan. Callum Irving, for one, will have to build up his confidence on the ball. The Fury keeper played the ball long at least a dozen times in the first half, which is likely around 10 ten times more than Popovic wants. Even in this system there are correct times to boot the ball long, but should be an absolute last resort or the result of spotting a golden opportunity to counter. Too many times, Irving had options open to him along the ground, namely to Falvey and Manesio who had split wide, but fell back on the habit of sending the ball in the air towards the halfway line. This more often than not led to Charlotte retrieving the ball, which is a big no-no for a possession team.
Playing possession football requires a team to be in peak cardiovascular form. As the first half drew to a close, it became clear that the Fury needed a break. In the 32nd minute, Mannella was stripped of the ball at the halfway line, and Charlotte’s prison break was on. In this instance, only Falvey’s masteful block prevented what looked like a golden scoring opportunity.
As the Fury tired, it became more and more difficult to staunch the Independence’s attacking flow. The Fury’s forwards no longer looked as committed to pressing the Independence back line, which gave them much more time on the ball and execute their plan.
Eventually, it would be a corner kick that would punch through the Fury’s defences. Following some good jockeying by Monti Mohsen to prevent a cross coming into the box, a corner was awarded. Donnie Smith launched a high, looping cross into the helter skelter heart of the Fury box, and Cordell Cato barely got his heel to the ball to deflect it past Irving. The Independence was headed into half time with a 1-0 lead, which seemed cruel in contrast to the way the Fury had acquitted themselves. Going into the half, the Fury held 63% of the possession, which will have made the skipper happy.
A telling change was made by Popovic to kick off the 2nd half. Cristian Portilla was brought in to replace Chris Mannella at defensive midfielder, Mannella slotted in next to Colin Falvey at the heart of the defence, Manesio shuffled out wide at left back and Mohsen, the 17-year old product of St. Anthony’s Soccer Club in Ottawa, was out. It will have a been a big lesson for Mohsen, who looked (understandably) nervous on his professional debut. He doesn’t look far off the pace, it should be noted. Perhaps more time spent with the first team on the training pitch is all he needs to settle. What a week for the youngster; signed to his first professional contract, and straight into the starting eleven on the road. Here’s hoping he doesn’t take his early substitution to heart.
Another tactical change took place at the half, and it was the Fury’s favoured side of attack. In the first half, the Fury had moved the ball off the left side through Manesio, Mohsen and Kevin Oliveira. Everything looked good until the Fury got into the final third, where it all fell apart. Early in the second half, the Fury were finding daylight by exploiting the right side of the field through Kyle Porter, Portilla and Carl Haworth. Haworth was especially effective throughout the night, a spark plug whenever he touched the ball.
Just as the Fury were gaining steam, referee Jonathan Bilinski failed to make a decision that would have completely changed the complexion of the match. Independence forward Caleb Calvert flew into Manesio with his studs up, an absolute no-doubt-about-it red card foul. Bilinski was well positioned to see it and had his eyes glued to the play, but failed to even call a simple foul. The Independence should have gone a man down at this point. They did not, and took full advantage.
It only took three minutes for the Charlotte squad to extend their lead to 2-0. Coming off a Fury corner, Cordell Cato and Joel Johnson were sprung free and neatly handled Kyle Porter with a give-and-go, which Cato buried past Irving.
Although the Fury would concede four goals on this night, it’s important to note that their level of effort did not dip. That’s a good indicator of the players’ belief in what they’re attempting to achieve. In the 64th minute, Popovic made another substitution to replace Jamar Dixon with Sito Seoane. The move would pay immediate dividends. On yet another Fury corner, the ball fell to Michael Salazar, who had himself come on just earlier for Tony Taylor. Salazar could do nothing more than back-heel the ball to an approaching Seoane, who launched the strike of the night into the back of the Independence goal. It was Seoane’s first touch of the match.
Ironically, the player who most grew into the game was the Independence’s Caleb Calvert, whom you’ll recall should have been sent to the showers early in the 2nd half. The Fury, despite conceding three goals in the second half, were at least equal in output as their foe. Should that foe have rightly been handicapped with an ejected player, the score could have gone the other way.
In the end, the Fury will have plenty of positives to take away from this match. The system Popovic is implementing will take some time to take root, but it was easy to see which way the Fury are heading. The motor’s been installed, but some oil is still needed to ensure the smooth operation of the Fury train.
Fury Man of the Match: Carl Haworth