PHOTOS: Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography/Ottawa Fury FC
By Théo Gauthier
The Ottawa Fury defeated semi-professional side AS Blainville 1-0 (2-0 on aggregate) in the second round of the Voyageurs Cup at TD Place on Wednesday night, booking themselves a semifinal berth against defending champions Toronto FC.
“One of the targets of this season was to reach the semi-final. So mission accomplished,” proclaimed Fury Head Coach Nikola Popovic after the match.
There’s no doubt that the Fury continue to churn out positive results in the face of adversity. This was the Fury’s fifth match in 14 days, a run of matches in which they’ve also had to suffer through a difficult travel schedule with last-minute changes and delays. Despite this, Popovic has continued to put his faith in the same starting eleven over the past three matches. Going into Wednesday night’s match, the Fury head coach seemed confident that his players had recovered enough to be called upon once more: “We have to choose the better players, (those) who are in the better moment. I think these (players) are the best ones at this moment.”
The results continue to confirm Popovic’s player selection. Twenty-one minutes into the second leg, his workhorses produced the match’s only goal. Adonijah Reid, the forward on the left of the Fury attack who is staking an early claim to be the Fury’s Player of the Year, took possession of the ball and dribbled to the end line. From there, he darted towards the goal and made a pass-feint to Tony Taylor inside the box. Blainville captain Nafi Dicko-Raynauld tackled Taylor, but in the process of his intervention inadvertently kicked the ball to Fury captain Carl Haworth, who buried a shot into the bottom left side of the goal. It was a cool finish and a great example of how best to use wingers in the attacking zone when employing a 4-3-3; Manchester City’s Leroy Sané would have approved of Reid’s contribution to the goal.
Despite the goal and the Fury’s 2-0 advantage—owing to last week’s away victory in Laval—the PLSQ outfit continued to give the hosts a good match with a well-organised defence and some cohesion in midfield. Spurred on by a section of loud and energetic travelling support numbering over 200 fans, Blainville fought for every loose ball and never seemed totally out of their depth. Asked what his team would have needed in order to get a better result, AS Blainville Head Coach Emmanuel Macagno stated the obvious: “We would have needed to score. A goal would have given us that extra lift we needed, and that goes for both the home and away tie.” After playing in a hotly-contested two-legged affair against Oakville, an in-form Fury side earned plaudits from Macagno: “Ottawa defends very well. In their league, they don’t concede either. We’re not the only ones who have failed to score against them.”
There were more goals on offer for the Fury, but Erwann Ofouya made a number of key saves to frustrate the Ottawa club. There were fears in some quarters that the addition of amateur clubs to the Voyageurs Cup could lead to some lopsided scores, but the champions from Quebec and Ontario have shown that the level of competition between their leagues and the USL is nowhere near an insurmountable gulf. If anything, AS Blainville and the Ontario League 1 champions Oakville Blue Devils have shown that there is a large reservoir of Canadian talent just waiting to be tapped for full professionalisation. “We anticipate losing some of our players (to the Canadian Premier League),” said Blainville head coach Emmanuel Macagno. “What it comes down to is if these amateur players want to set out on a new adventure. If they can go prove themselves at a higher level, we’ll wish them well and work hard to replace them.”
The Fury, as they have been all season, put in a shift. Jamar Dixon, the in-stadium Man of the Match, was fully deserving of the honour. The Ottawa-born midfielder was the foundation on which the Fury house was built, and there were no cracks. Thomas Meilleur-Giguère continued his ascent to the top of the Fury depth chart, and the chemistry developing between Tony Taylor and Reid continues to blossom.
The Fury did have a considerable setback in the latter part of the match. A few minutes after coming on, Maxim Tissot tried to chase down a long vertical pass along the left flank. As he approached the end line and started putting on the brakes, something went wrong. Tissot recently started seeing his first minutes of the season as a substitute, having recovered from a quad injury to his left leg. As he was stretchered off, it was clear that the same leg was being tended to by the medical staff. As of the time of this writing, no updates were available except that he was taken for tests to determine the extent of the damage. Tissot was a major winger signing for the Fury, and his loss will be felt as the club continue their torrid schedule, which swings into Cincinnati on Saturday night and Indianapolis Wednesday. The Fury now has limited cover for Reid on the left flank, with Jimmy Sanon and Azake Luboyera more naturally suited to the right side. Tactics aside, it was a crushing setback for a player who’s worked so hard to get match-fit.
Toronto FC now looms large in the Fury schedule. The home match is set for July 18th, with the return leg slated a week later at BMO Field. The MLS and Voyageurs Cup champions have had difficulty recovering from an arduous—albeit successful—run to the CONCACAF Champions League final where they lost to Club America of Mexico City. Their MLS ambitions are in dire straits as they languish at the bottom of the Eastern standings, which might be a great benefit to the Fury if Head Coach Greg Vanney decides making the MLS playoffs is more important than winning back-to-back Voyageurs Cups. It’s not hard to imagine TFC playing an underpowered side against the Fury, especially in the first leg. The flipside of that reasoning is that TFC enjoyed the prestige of Champions League to the point of doing whatever it takes to make it back. Pick your poison.
Popovic spoke glowingly about the Voyageurs Cup and his desire to see the competition expand beyond its current format, and even went further than the addition of the Canadian Premier League clubs next season. “I think it will be interesting if everybody can play the Canadian championship and then the best one wins. I think that will be interesting for Canadian soccer to give everybody the opportunity. (In Europe), it’s a big part of the football in those countries. We have all the teams, from the lowest league to the highest league. Everybody plays.”
Next up for the Fury is that trip to FC Cincinnati, leaders in the USL Eastern Conference, who just drew Toronto FC II, the worst team in the league, on Wednesday night. Are they vulnerable following the setback, or will they be out to course-correct?
- The away support was the biggest ever seen at TD Place. They sang well past the final whistle and must have been a great source of inspiration for the Blainville squad.
- Nikola Popovic is the first Fury Head Coach to call for grass at TD Place. “The surface doesn’t help. It was a pity because I think the two teams have good players, but on this surface, it’s very, very difficult to play football. In Europe, you’re not allowed to have turf; you play on natural grass. First, because it’s dangerous. And then because…it’s not so beautiful to watch.” Hey, if BMO Field can do it…. (ED NOTE: Théo Gauthier LOVES spending other people’s money.)
- The evening’s referee, Juan Marquez, could teach World Cup referees how to use the free kick spray can. Don’t tell the players where to stand then paint your line; paint your line and let the players figure it out. Been driving me nuts watching those supposedly at the top of their profession bumble about with their foam. Respect the foam.
- Fury Man of the Match: Jamar Dixon. See above. Dixon’s been a fan-favourite since his arrival and has repaid that adulation with improved play under Popovic. The Pep Effect? Nah, The POP Effect. Same could be said for Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and any number of Fury players who have flourished under the Serbian’s instruction.