BATTLE FOR FIRST: Atletico Ottawa look to knock out Forge FC in huge home showdown on Sunday

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There’s no championship on the line, but Sunday’s home showdown (7 p.m. at TD Place) with Forge FC is truly a big deal for Atletico Ottawa and its growing and enthusiastic fan base.

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Unbeaten in their last five games, Atletico are looking to maintain their momentum, looking to improve one game at a time, looking to smother their opponents with head coach Carlos Gonzalez’s defensive system which has seen the Ottawa team give up only 15 goals in 16 games. (eight wins, five draws and three losses).

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Forge FC, who are tied with Ottawa (but considered first by one game less) are dangerous — with 33 goals scored and only 14 allowed. But, in two games against the Hamilton-based team this season, Ottawa won 1-0 (with a wonderful free kick from Ollie Bassett making the difference) and tied 1-1, both on the road. Pacific FC is also deadlocked with 29 points, but has played one game more than Ottawa and two more than Forge FC.

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“The reality is we’re tied at the top of the table,” Gonzelez said. “It makes the game more impactful. But for us, every game is important. The value for all games is three points, so for us it’s as important as the next game.

To understand what it means for a professional soccer club in Ottawa to fight for the top of the Canadian Premier League table, to play against Forge FC with the top spot on the line, you need to understand the story. It also goes way back when Ottawa Fury FC were on a roll, winning the 2015 fall season before losing the Soccer Bowl 3-2 to the New York Cosmos. Fury FC folded after the 2019 season. Atletico joined the CPL ahead of the condensed 2020 season (finishing seventh), then stumbled to an eighth place a year ago with a record six wins, eight draws and 14 losses. It seems so long ago now. With the departure of Mista as head coach, replaced by Gonzalez, great things have happened on and off the football pitch for Atletico. A crowd of more than 3,500 is expected for Sunday’s showdown. There is once again excitement within the Ottawa soccer community.

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“Playing in front of our fans is an extra boost for the team,” Gonzalez said. “When we play at home, we feel the energy of the fans. We play all matches with a similar mentality, whether at home or away. Our goal is the same: to be competitive, show our best face and win the three points.

The opposition has been a powerhouse since day 1 of the CPL. Forge FC won the league championships in 2019 and 2020, then finished first in the 2021 championship before losing 1-0 to Pacific FC in the CPL Final.

“When we play against teams like Forge, it’s a great opportunity to measure our level, to measure where we are as a team,” Gonzalez said. “Forge is one of the best teams in the CPL, they have been good for a long time. The team has been working with the same coach for a long time (Bobby Smyrniotis). It’s a dominant team, a very complete team with a lot of talent.

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As for Atletico, everything has gone well since the players gathered for the training camp in early March. Goalkeeper Nathan Ingham has seven league-leading clean sheets. And the players up front provided goals at the right times. In their last match, Atletico won their first-ever victory over York United – 3-0 at York. Despite the three-goal explosion, it was another defensive performance that stood out – with Drew Beckie, Maxim Tissot and Miguel Acosta all named to the CPL Team of the Week.

“The team has grown significantly,” Gonzalez said. “We created really important things, not only tactically, but we have a clear identity, we are able to manage games in different circumstances. The way the team has improved the most is in the mentality, the way we approach every game, the way the players believe we can play against any good team and (win).

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“I am a coach who believes in the process, in the daily work. Without this process, the rest of the things are impossible to achieve. You want results to happen. Without the results, you don’t trust the process that much.

There’s a big reminder from Gonzalez about what’s already happened and what lies ahead. This is the big picture, the end game. And there’s a lot of work to do before that.

“It’s a constantly moving process,” he said. “The reality is that right now we are having great results and fighting for the top spot in the CPL. Yet we have a long way to go. We must continue to work hard and improve if we are to maintain these results. Our target is very clear; it’s the same objective we had at the start of the season. We play each match as if it were a final. The reality is that we want to keep moving forward.

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FIND SHADOW A HOME:

Atletico Ottawa has partnered with Eastern Ontario Potcake Rescue for Shadow’s Big Night. The idea is to find Shadow, a five-year-old Great Dane/German Shepherd mix, a forever home at Sunday’s game. When he arrived at the facility, he was underweight, skin infections, food allergies and a case of “happy tail”. With his health issues taken care of, Shadow has been called a “gentle giant”. The scouting report: “He absolutely loves people, he bonds very quickly. He’s a big, cuddly boy who’s great with other dogs, but needs a cat-free home. Because Shadow is so people-oriented, he does best with someone who is home most of the day to keep him company.

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