After two years sitting in the cellar of the Canadian Premier League, Atlético Ottawa — owned by Spanish soccer giant Atlético Madrid — has been transformed.

The club has finished the 2022 regular season on top of the standings and notching the team’s first playoff win: a 2-0 triumph over Victoria, B.C.’s Pacific FC.

After topping the league with a 13-10-5 win-draw-loss record for 49 points — just three points ahead of 13-7-8 Pacific FC who hold the fourth spot — Atlético now has a commanding 2-0 lead on aggregate over the B.C. club heading into the second leg of their playoff semi-final series on Sunday at TD Place. Atletico advancing to the finals is the expected outcome, given their result in the first leg.

The 2 p.m. match will be the franchise’s first-ever playoff game on home turf. If Ottawa clinches the semifinal victory as expected, the club will also host the CPL championship match at TD Place on Oct. 29 against the winner of the other semi-final series — either Calgary’s Cavalry FC or Hamilton’s Forge FC.

Hamilton and Calgary tied 1-1 in their first playoff match; Game 2 in that series will be played Sunday at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

Atlético’s success this season represents a huge improvement after finishing last in the league in 2021 recording only 26 points, the lowest point total in CPL history. 

‘To be able to host a game of this magnitude at home in front of our fans is a tremendous achievement — not for just the fans and the players, but the entire city of Ottawa, too.’

— Kwesi Loney, Atlético Ottawa assistant coach

Gordon Smith, a soccer analyst who covers Atlético for TSN, credits a lot of the club’s success this season on great coaching and team management finding players who fit their scheme.

“The coaching staff that has come in with new ideas has come in with an approach to the game that works very well at both ends of the field. They can defend very well, but they can attack very well,” Smith said. “The counterattack is one of the best in the league as they’re always moving everybody forward into scoring positions as quickly as possible.”

Smith had effusive praise for head coach Carlos Gonzalez and his contributions to the team, including his new tactics and ideas, his ability to get the players to all buy into the team’s new identity, and the team’s overall mentality.  

Gonzalez “had the Midas touch with everything that Ottawa has done this year. They’ve only lost five games out of 28, which is quite an incredible accomplishment,” Smith said. “Coming into the season, Atlético brought in a new coach, 16 new players from all over the world, and a brand new coaching staff.”

He added: “They brought in people with new ideas, new tactics, and new ways of looking at the game — and new players who are talented and have an immense dedication to the game and their craft.”

B.C. native Zachary Verhoven, seen celebrating a goal at home, is one of the new players Atlético Ottawa signed ahead of the 2021 season. He was also one of the few players that remained when Atlético brought in 16 new players ahead of the 2022 season. [Photo © Tim Austen/Atletico Ottawa/Freestyle Photography.]

Kwesi Loney is an assistant coach with Atlético Ottawa and the head coach of the Carleton University men’s Ravens soccer team. He said Atlético Ottawa is a great opportunity for the university players in Ottawa to move from varsity into the professional ranks.

As an assistant coach, Loney has been part of Atlético’s overhaul. He credits the organization’s changing dynamic, culture, and mentality for its success in 2022.

“Being there firsthand, I can see the amount of work that the staff (puts) in to ensure that the players — especially all the new ones — are prepared for every match. (It’s) something I’ve never seen before. It’s a tireless amount of work,” Loney said.

However, it takes a lot to build team cohesion, according to Loney. The players need to be receptive, there needs to be a collective attitude between everyone and the culture needs to be just right.

With so many new players, a new coach, and new tactics everyone needed to learn, it’s hard to develop chemistry. Smith explained that the team’s five-week-long preseason training camp in Madrid was critical in helping the team create that chemistry, working on the fundamentals before the season started. That time helped them realize they are a special group, he said.

Loney believes Atlético and the CPL offer a great opportunity for U-Sports athletes to pursue a professional career.

“When you have a professional club playing at the level of Atlético Ottawa in your backyard, it makes that dream of playing professionally so much closer to reality,” Loney said.

“Having your home team’s stadium five minutes from campus makes (the dream of playing professionally) a lot more accessible, a lot more realistic, and facilitates the connections between (Carleton’s) players and (Atletico’s) coaching staff. A number of Ravens players had the opportunity to train with Atlético over the summer, so there is a bit of familiarity there,” Loney added.

Hosting a playoff game is an incredible achievement that means a lot to the players and coaching staff considering what they went through to earn it, Loney says.

“We’re talking about a 28-game regular season, playing each opposition four times and traveling across the country to achieve these results,” Loney said. “I’m very proud of the players for their accomplishments because it was definitely not an easy feat.”

The playoff berth and hosting a playoff game also mean a lot to the fans who have been supporting Atlético Ottawa since its inauguration in 2020. 

“It’s very rewarding for the fans, who have been through a lot here in the city, not just with Atlético Ottawa but also the club before us, which was the Ottawa Fury,” Loney said. “I think it’s a great moment for the fanbase to show that their time, energy, and efforts to push the team forward are now going to be rewarded.”

‘I think the atmosphere at the stadium is a big part of why the fans are having a great time and why they want to come back in the future.’

— Eddie Benhin, a CAPO (someone who leads the chants at Atlético Ottawa home games) for Capital City Supporters Group

“To be able to host a game of this magnitude at home in front of our fans is a tremendous achievement — not for just the fans and the players, but the entire city of Ottawa, too,” Loney said, adding that Atlético’s success will foster a passion for the game at the grassroots level, helping grow the game of soccer in the city.

Smith agreed, adding that an Atlético win in the semifinals and hosting the league championship would only strengthen fans’ commitment to the club.

“When you’re winning, (the fans) love it. But when you’re not winning, then the fans won’t come out to the games and support the team as well as they should,” he said. “If Atlético’s success continues, soccer’s popularity in Ottawa will continue to grow at a rapid pace.”

Smith said there is one group of fans who always come out regardless of the result, making noise all game.

“From the broadcast booth, I can hear them cheering all game, completely driving this team forward,” Smith said. 

Eddie Benhin is a CAPO for the Capital City Supporters Group. His role as CAPO is to lead the chants in Section W of TD Place — which is where many CCSG members sit — at every single home game all season. Benhin said he and the supporters group are always so loud during the match because they want to motivate the team.

“It feels so good knowing that our cheering has an impact on the game, the players and that people are recognizing it,” said Benhin.

The Capital City Supporters Group in Section W of TD Place Stadium makes noise from the first to the 90th minute at every home game, firing up the crowd and providing a big spark of energy to the players. [Photo © Tim Austen/Atletico Ottawa/Freestyle Photgraphy].

Benhin said support from the supporters group is even more meaningful to the players in a close game because it gives the players the burst of energy they need when they are tired.

“One game that stands out was a 3-2 win against Halifax,” said Benhin. “They tied the game in the 90th minute and 40 seconds later we scored the winner — and part of that is because of how loud the crowd was, which gave energy to the players.”

Benhin said Atlético’s dramatic improvement this season is a huge accomplishment and is well deserved for the players, the organization, and the fans. He also said the CPL provides a viable pathway for young grassroots players and U-Sports athletes to make it professionally that didn’t exist before.

“Once you get to U-Sports, you could get drafted into the CPL if you’re good enough. Also, Atlético has its own development program, and they’ve partnered with many grassroots soccer clubs in Ottawa, so they’re able to develop young players for the future,” Benhin said.

Being at every home game, Benhin has seen attendance increase each game this season. He said he thinks fan support will grow regardless of how Atlético does in the remaining playoff games. But if they win the CPL championship, he added, it would grow exponentially.

“I think the atmosphere at the stadium is a big part of why the fans are having a great time and why they want to come back in the future.”