PHOTOS: Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography/Ottawa Fury FC
By Théo Gauthier
The Ottawa Fury kept on rolling at Lansdowne on a hot and humid Wednesday night, defeating their provincial rivals Toronto FC II 3-0.
The win extended the Fury’s undefeated streak to six matches, as well as making it 553 minutes since the last time they allowed their net to bulge. They are now one point off the playoff pace in the USL’s Eastern Conference, a stark contrast from where they stood at the start of the month. Over the course of their current tear, the Fury have won 14 points out of the 18 on offer.
Although Wednesday’s final score suggests a rout, the truth is that the Fury had to grind it out to get a result. The opening goal, scored on a penalty by Steevan Dos Santos, came after a sobering sequence which ended with a substitution for each side. Chasing down a beautifully-weighted cross-field ball from Eddie Edward, Fury midfielder Kévin Oliveira closed on the bouncing ball inside the 18-yard box. While TFC II defender Brandon Onkony tried to shield him away from the ball, Oliveira poked the ball away with the tip of his boot just as keeper Drew Shepherd attempted to collect. Oliveira, perhaps invisible to Shepherd because of Onkony’s position, collided at full speed with the keeper. The collision was violent in the way that crashes are when neither participant sees it coming, and a loud crunch echoed throughout the stadium. Both players spun in midair as if performing some demented ballet routine, landing hard on the ground. The referee immediately pointed to the spot, but an entire stadium held its collective breath as Shepherd writhed on the ground and Oliveira lay motionless. We would later learn that Oliveira was severely cut over his left eye, and Shepherd suffered a broken nose; that was the crunch heard ‘round Lansdowne. Shepherd was immediately substituted and had to be carried out on a stretcher. For Oliveira, however, head coach Nikola Popovic was reluctant to make the switch until he was entirely sure the Cape Verdean would not be able to continue.
When asked why it took 22 minutes from the time of Oliveira’s injury to the substitution, Popovic admitted that there was some confusion on the sidelines: “The information that I was getting was that it (would be) ‘Two minutes; one minute; five minutes,’ (before his return).” With his team in the midst of a hectic stretch of its schedule, he was reluctant to go to his bench prematurely. “We can’t forget that we have three games in one week and…I know what’s coming, and I started (to see) the team suffering and fighting for one more man, so we couldn’t wait anymore, and then we (had to) make the sub.” The man called on to replace Oliveira was young Canadian prospect Thomas Balbinotti, making only his second appearance as a professional.
During his halftime remarks, Popovic would call for more intensity from his squad in the second half; they would respond with a goal shortly after the break. The high press demonstrated by the Fury in the early minutes of the second half paid off as Adonijah Reid and Balbinotti harried the TFC II defence into conceding a corner. With Cristian Portilla nursing a rib injury for the next two to four weeks, the responsibility for corner kicks from the right side of the goal fell to Carl Haworth. The Fury captain favours his right foot; it was, therefore, an outswinging corner that met Nana Attakora’s head and flew into the back of the goal. For those keeping score at home: that was two professional Canadian soccer players working to earn a corner, a professional Canadian soccer player taking the corner, and a Canadian professional soccer player on the end of it.
At one point, 18 of the 22 players on the field were Canadians. Popovic was quick to remind the assembled media in his post-match press conference that the whole point of this Fury season is to prove that a team can be stocked with Canadians and find success: “I think we cannot forget that we have eight Canadian players in the starting eleven. This is the thing that makes us all proud and I think should make Ottawa and Canadians feel proud.” In a year where the Canadian Premier League is making a splash with weekly club unveilings, it’s a reminder that the Fury is leading the way as a proof of concept.
The best goal of the night was saved for last. Attacking TFC II from the left side—as they did all night thanks in part to a flawless performance by Onua Obasi—a long pass from Ugandan winger Azake Luboyera created a one-on-one battle between Fury forward Tony Taylor and defender Rocco Romeo. The resulting scramble led to the ball landing in front of an onrushing Dos Santos who, with a perfect touch, directed the ball away from another TFC II defender and placed it perfectly for a shot on the run. With his shot, he put just enough spin on the ball for it to swerve away from the sprawling keeper and into the left corner of the goal. Blowout victory signed, sealed and delivered.
Despite the string of positive results, Popovic was circumspect in his post-match comments. Asked if he felt the Fury were now amongst the best teams in the USL’s Eastern Conference, his answer was straight to the point: “No. We are far from that. There are four or five or six clubs who are very, very strong that have a different investment and different budget than we have.” He then delivered a warning to those who would get carried away: “I think this is the most dangerous thing in football. We have to be very careful with the situation. We are far from (being one of the best teams). We said in the beginning of the season that we are going to try to fight for the playoffs. What I can tell you is whoever comes, and wherever we go, you will see this team fighting with pride. This team has a strong identity. They know why they are fighting. And believe me, I can guarantee you that wherever we go these players are going to fight for us until the end.”
The Fury is a club on an upward trajectory. The head coach is trying to manage expectations, but in so doing is also promising even better things from this club. Watching that process unfold is only one reason the Fury is a more compelling team to watch compared with recent seasons. The promise of fulfilling the Fury’s untapped potential is a powerful incentive for soccer fans in the region to flock to Lansdowne this summer.
- The Fury are now within one match, plus five minutes, of breaking the club record for consecutive minutes without conceding a goal (648). Paging Penn FC’s Romuald Peiser…
- Eight out of the 11 Fury starters were Canadians. When Popovic talks about the “why” of “the project”, as he often does, that’s what he’s referring to.
Fury Man of the Match: Onua Obasi. As previously mentioned, he was absolutely flawless on the left side of the Fury’s defence. Nothing got past him, and he was spectacular going forward. When he sees a weakness to exploit, he pounces. This makes him one of the more exciting Fury players to watch.