The fifth season of the Canadian Premier League began Saturday with host Atlético Ottawa and Halifax Wanderers playing to a 1-1 draw in front of 7,000 soccer fans at TD Place on a summery April day.
Atlético — the CPL’s defending regular season champion and runner-up to Hamilton’s Forge FC in last year’s playoff battle for the North Star Shield — was led again Saturday by the CPL’s reigning player of the year, attacking midfielder Ollie Bassett.
The team’s goal scorer against Halifax was the only returning Atlético midfielder or forward. The other five players in those positions made their club debut in Saturday’s game.
Bassett led the way on both sides of the ball and helped Atlético control the middle of the field. His brilliant strike into the bottom left corner of the net just before halftime secured a point in their home opener, despite not playing their best soccer.
“We only played maybe 10-15 minutes of quality (soccer) in the first half and 10-15 minutes of quality in the second half,” Atlético head coach Carlos Gonzalez said after the game. “We didn’t have consistency or play at the level we expected.
“We made mistakes that are unexpected. We didn’t play as relaxed as we should have, and we made many unforced errors.”
One key blunder was a giveaway in the midfield that led to the Wanderer’s opening goal.
Former Paris St. Germain and Genoa academy product Lorenzo Callegari made an instant impact for Halifax in his CPL debut, intercepting a pass at midfield by former Wanderers’ forward Samuel Salter.
He led a quick counter before passing to forward Aidan Daniels, who dribbled to the edge of the box before finding teammate Zachary Fernandez open on the 18-yard line. Fernandez calmly controlled the pass and tucked the ball into the bottom left corner to give the visitors the lead in the 16th minute.
Much of the Wanderers’ offence went through Callegari, who touched the ball 127 times — 20 more than any other player — and completed 99 of his 113 attempted passes.
Atlético Ottawa’s young midfield played solidly together; they communicated well, supported each other and Bassett linked up at times with all the youngsters, including newcomer Noah Verhoeven and Jean-Aniel Assi, who crossed the ball to Bassett for the equalizer.
“I think we’re all relatively comfortable on the ball, entire areas we can play one or two touches to get out of certain situations,” Bassett said.
However, at times the midfield was hesitant to make a play, looked uncomfortable on the ball or appearing to scramble under pressure, especially when being pressed by Callegari and the rest of the Wanderers’ defence. The Atlético defence was solid, but was occasionally outwitted by Callegari’s creativity.
Atlético’s main issue was the lack of an attacking threat from the majority of the young midfield. Gianni Dos Santos showed some flashes of brilliance in his debut but occasionally found himself uninvolved and isolated away from the attack.
Salter was responsible for the counterattack that resulted in Halifax’s goal and also made some sloppy passes. But a player of his quality should improve.
Gonzalez challenged him after the match to bounce back from this game and show why he was brought in and had such a successful preseason.
‘As far as first games go, I always say, ‘If you can’t win it, make sure you don’t lose.’ ‘— Ollie Bassett, attacking midfielder, Ottawa Atlético
“I think he wasn’t good today,” Gonzalez said after the match. “We expect much more from him. He had good games throughout the preseason but he didn’t find the spaces that we are looking for him, and he didn’t feel that spark today. We will see in the future if he can find it.”
Bassett was the veteran presence in the midfield and led the way offensively in the second half. He recorded a few more quality scoring chances, too. The biggest came late in the second half when he curled a shot just wide of the net in the 85th minute, failing to find the winner.
Bassett recognized the team wasn’t at their best today, but emphasized the importance of playing with resilience and getting a decent result.
“As far as first games go, I always say, ‘If you can’t win it, make sure you don’t lose,’” Bassett said at the post-match press conference.
Good teams get solid results even when not playing their best. Atlético did that Saturday. They didn’t give up after conceding the first goal, and kept attacking to earn their point.
Still, Halifax held possession 58 per cent of the time, outshooting Ottawa 11-8 overall and 4-3 on target.
Atlético used its accurate passing to move the ball down the field efficiently in transition and they were able to utilize the entire field, including the flanks to spread out the Wanderers’ defence to create openings in the middle of the pitch.
The key for such a young squad is growth and development. The theme of the postgame press conference was the need to take what they learned from the season opener and build on it in the next handful of matches in the coming weeks.
Atlético’s challenge is to set a strong foundation early in the season and build on it over time, develop chemistry as a squad.
The CPL is the highest ranked league in the Canadian soccer system. It consists of nine teams from five provinces, and each club plays 28 regular season games. The four best advance to the CPL playoffs. The winner receives the North Star Shield trophy as league champion.
Both the regular season champion and North Star Shield winner earn earn berths in the CONCACAF Champions League, competing against teams from across North and Central America and the Caribbean for a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.
The CPL is a perfect place for young Canadian soccer players who don’t get the opportunity to play in Europe or in North America’s top league — Major League Soccer — to kickstart their professional careers.
Since its inception in 2017 and its first season in 2019, the league’s focus has been to improve national soccer talent, popularize and grow the game in Canada, and develop young talented players for the National Team.
The CPL has multiple rules in place to ensure it meets its goals, including a minimum quota of Canadian players on each team’s roster and in each team’s starting lineup, a minimum quota for the amount of minutes that all domestic U-21 players on each team play throughout the season and participating in the USports varsity draft to give talented university players a chance to develop their skills professionally.
The CPL has succeeded in accomplishing its goals in the past few years. Both fan interest and and the number of young players focusing on the CPL to advance their career is on the rise, according to Gordon Smith, who covers Atlético Ottawa for TSN.