The Ottawa Fury FC’s late-season charge for a North American Soccer League playoff spot took a devastating blow on Sunday after a stabbing shot from Minnesota striker Christian Ramirez – his league-leading 16th goal of the season – proved decisive in the dying moments of the crucial game.
The last-gasp winner was enough to lift the NASL’s first-place team to a 3-2 victory in front of more than 5,000 disappointed Fury fans at TD Place.
“We deserved better,” Fury head coach Marc Dos Santos said after the game. When it was 2-2, I felt that we were the best team.”
Dos Santos attributed the late goal – it came in the 88th minute – to a lack of focus on his team’s part.
“We didn’t defend well on the goals. Overall we had bad moments and Minnesota punished us,” Dos Santos said.
“It’s disappointing because we played three times against the first-place team that has completely dominated the league and the three times we lose by one goal.”
Minnesota United FC’s lethal counter-attack proved to be the defining factor in a game that was an all-around tense affair. After Fury striker Tom Heinemann opened the scoring with a 16th-minute penalty shot, Ottawa conceded two quick goals on the Minnesota counter-attack to find themselves trailing 2-1 at half-time.
In the second half, the home team dominated ball possession and forced a pressing game on their opponents. In the 55th minute, Fury FC captain Richie Ryan scored his first goal for the club and the game’s equalizer after curling a left-footed free kick over the wall and beyond the reach of United goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel, rippling the top right corner of the net.
However, Ramirez’s clinical finish and game-winning goal with just two minutes left in regulation time saw the Fury drop to 11 points behind the Carolina RailHawks and the coveted fourth and final NASL playoff spot.
Although the team has a game in hand on Carolina and is still mathematically in the playoff hunt, Dos Santos acknowledged after the loss that achieving a playoff birth “is going to take a miracle.”
Sunday’s defeat leaves the Fury with an overall record of six wins, four draws and 11 losses in the team’s first season in the NASL. Falling to Minnesota also dropped the team’s home record to two wins, three draws and six losses.
It has been a whirlwind inaugural season in the NASL for the Fury, which has seen a young group of players from around the world come together and compete admirably against well-established teams such as Minnesota and the New York Cosmos. Adding to the challenge, the team was also forced to play its first five home games on Carleton University’s Ravens Field until construction of TD Place was finished.
Despite these challenges, team president John Pugh says the club is pleased with its first season in the NASL, North America’s second-tier professional league under Major League Soccer.
“We have a team that plays attractive soccer and can compete with the best teams in the league,” he said following Sunday’s loss to Minnesota. “Moreover, we have a rapidly growing fan base that appreciates high quality soccer and supporters’ groups that add passion and colour to an already amazing game-day experience at TD Place.”
Stephane Brisson-Merrick, president of the Fury fan group Bytown Boys Supporters Club, said of the Minnesota match: “I have had a lot more fun at this game than any other home game. It was a fun crowd today. We lost, but we had a blast.”
The Fury had only a few short days to shrug off the shock of Ramirez’s late stunner as the team is scheduled to kick off against the Atlanta Silverbacks on Wednesday at TD Place.
When asked what the Fury must do to become a playoff contender, Dos Santos said: “We need to be a little bit more mature in certain positions.”
With the possibility of a first-season playoff birth close to vanished, Ottawa has just six games remaining before the team will be forced to carry its playoff aspirations into next season.