It’s another heartbreaker for Atlético Ottawa.

The team’s winless streak is now six games after conceding a stoppage time winner for the fourth time in the last five matches and for the seventh time this season. 

Ottawa hasn’t won a game since August.

“It’s deja vu, it’s a repetitive situation,” Atlético head coach Carlos Gonzalez said about the loss. “It’s tough.” 

The match pretty well summarizes Atlético’s season. A slow start, an eager push in the second half and a disappointing result.

Gonzalez said he thought the first half was equal, but Ottawa was the better team in the second half. They created better chances, but simply weren’t ruthless or clinical enough in key moments to find the winner.

It started like all too many other games. Ottawa had a slow launch, and Valour took advantage by moving the ball up the pitch with quick passes and recording three shot attempts in the first 10 minutes. One by Marco Polisi was blocked seven minutes in, and in the minutes that followed, Pacifique Niyongabire and then Matteo de Brienne both just missed.

Ottawa matched Valour’s energy by attacking in transition down the flanks before sending crosses to open players in the box. Ollie Bassett and Sam Salter recorded Ottawa’s first two shots. Salter’s was the first on target, but it was denied by Valour’s goalkeeper, Rayane Yesli.

Both teams defended well in their own half, forcing turnovers and closing down passing lanes. This contributed to the lack of quality chances for either team.

It was scoreless at 45 minutes in.

Early in the second half, a brilliant corner kick by Ottawa midfielder Ilias Iliadis nearly curled directly into the net. Yesli deflected it with his fingertips onto the crossbar and out of harm’s way.

Most of the match was being played in the middle of the park, in between both boxes. Both midfielders moved the ball well down the pitch but weren’t clinical enough with their final action in the attacking third. 

From the 65th minute onward, Ottawa knew a draw wouldn’t be enough to catch Halifax. And so began an all-out effort to score a winning goal that saw their defenders and midfielders push high up the pitch.

But high risk won’t always bring a high reward. A miscommunication in the attacking half led to a Ottawa turnover. Valour took the ball in transition and capitalized in the final seconds.

Williams played a low cross along the ground to Walter Ponce. He made no mistake, firing a powerful shot into the bottom corner of Atlético’s net, and past the outstretched arms of keeper Nathan Ingham.

With seconds remaining in stoppage time, Ottawa went from securing one point to dropping all three.

After the match, Yesli noted the win means a lot for his team’s morale, but it would’ve meant more if they were still in the playoff race.

“We’re playing our best until the end of the season to try to win. We have pride, we have fans back home that deserve something. So when we step on the field, we just think about making them proud and we’re fighting for our careers too,” Yesli said. “So getting a win like this against a good team that’s fighting for the playoffs is amazing.”

Yesli added that he loves to play spoiler as the underdog in big matches like these where the team has nothing to lose. 

Valour head coach Phillip Dos Santos was proud of his team’s efforts despite getting eliminated from playoff contention with a loss on Wednesday.

“When you’re in moments like that, you want to see the integrity of the guys and know they’re going to stick to finishing things off in a professional way,” Dos Santos said. “It was a hard week for us, very difficult emotionally after losing a game that (last Sunday) we felt we shouldn’t have lost before losing on Wednesday after making costly errors.”

“It’s an emotional one. So for them to come out and respond well in a very difficult game against excellent opposition is a testament to their characters,” he continued.

Gonzalez said he knew the risk in applying so much pressure late in a tight game. He added there are many factors to the repetitive conceding of late stoppage time winners, but his biggest explanation is their poor start to the season.

“When you lose a lot of points in the beginning (of the season), it makes it so that for more than half of the season you are chasing the season, you are trying to win every single game because it’s not enough to tie and this creates mental fatigue where small details in certain moments are punishing us.”

Ottawa started the season in last place with an 0-2-2 record. Those early points dropped had them fighting for the higher seeds in the playoff picture. As a result, the team knew they couldn’t afford to drop points, even draws weren’t enough, so they had to go all out to try to win, but doing so every game is hard on the players. 

Last season, Atlético won the CPL with a record of 13-10-5 (48 points). They lost only five games. They started the season 2-1-1 and were tied for second in the league after four games. Their better start made it so they didn’t have to attack for a winner in stoppage time. As a result, they didn’t lose a single game in stoppage time last year and only conceded once which led to a a 2-2 draw vs York.

The loss dampened the mood for all 7,044 fans in attendance. For Ottawa captain Carl Haworth it may have been even more poignant. The match could be his final regular season game ever at TD Place as he is retiring at the end of the season. 

Meanwhile Dos Santos said securing the win brought a feeling of relief to everyone in Valour’s locker room.

“There’s a huge sense of relief, because we feel that you know, the story of our season has been one where there’s many games where we deserved to score a goal and we don’t and then we concede and drop points.”

Atlético Ottawa players celebrate what might be team captain Carl Haworth’s last match at home. [Photo @ Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography]

Gonzalez shared some words about Haworth, describing him as a player, and a person, that has given so much to the football community in Ottawa. 

“I’m happy for him. I think that if you forget the result, this has been an ideal sendoff.”

Haworth agreed. Results aside, “to see so many familiar faces in the crowd was something special; people who I’ve seen 10 years ago and kind of grown with them and grown with football here in the city.” 

“It’s been emotional and to have my family here in town as well to share that moment with them was pretty incredible as well,” he added.

The loss keeps Ottawa in fifth place in the Canadian Premier League with a record of 9-6-11 (33 points). They are three back of fourth place Halifax Wanderers (9-9-8, 36 points).

Ottawa had a perfect opportunity to leapfrog over Halifax — who lost 2-1 against Vancouver on Saturday — into fourth place and to extend the gap between themselves and York United who fell 1-0 to Cavalry, who officially clinched the league title with their victory and Pacific’s defeat. 

It stings.

The difference between the fourth and fifth seed in the CPL playoffs is drastic; the fourth seed team hosts the fifth seed team with the winner advancing to play the third seed. In a league as competitive as the CPL, home advantage is crucial.

Ottawa’s loss reduces its odds of catching Halifax, meaning if Ottawa does make the playoffs, the team will be the fifth seed and will have to travel to the Maritimes, where they lost a close match in stoppage time on Sept. 18.

Now, Ottawa’s next game is arguably the most important game of their campaign on the road against sixth-placed York. The winner of that game will likely secure the fifth seed in the playoffs.

Gonzalez said he knows the team’s next game will be critical to their playoff hopes; he even called it a cup final.

“They have the same need as us, the need to win,” he said. “The emotions of the last few games are going to be the key aspect of the game. How we deal with the emotions, how we control the details, how we can be a little bit better.”

Haworth reflected on his career, and listed some of his greatest memories in his decade-long career in Ottawa for both the Fury and Atletico.

“Obviously my first professional game was a big one for me and then scoring the first professional Ottawa goal here at TD Place was a big one,” Haworth said. “Representing my country against South Korea was a big one and then making it to two finals with Ottawa franchises were special moments despite being on the losing end both times.”

Haworth believes Atlético still has a chance to make some noise in the playoffs this year, but first they need to secure their spot in the postseason.