Atletico Ottawa continues its worst-to-first season Saturday with its first visit to the Canadian Premier League playoffs, taking on defending champion Pacific FC on Vancouver Island in semifinal play.
Last in the eight-team league at 6-14-8 in 2021, Ottawa topped the standings this year under new manager Carlos Gonzalez.
“We are step-by-step making history here,” the Spaniard said Friday.
Gonzalez’s message going into the playoffs is simple. Forget the regular season.
“We know that everybody is happy with the work the team is doing. But you know in soccer there is no memory,” he said. “We have to look forward.
“Nobody will remember what we’ve done if we don’t continue doing things in the right way.”
The semifinals are two-legged affairs.
No. 4 Pacific FC (13-8-7, 46 points) hosts No. 1 Atletico Ottawa (13-5-10, 49 points) at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C., while No. 3 Cavalry (14-9-5, 47 points) entertains No. 2 Forge FC (14-9-5, 47 points) at ATCO Field.
The return legs are Oct. 23 in Ottawa and Hamilton.
Ottawa goes into the playoffs unbeaten in nine matches (4-0-5) since a 1-0 loss Aug. 13 at Pacific. It was 1-2-1 against Pacific this season with each of the three decisions decided by one goal. They tied 1-1 the last time they met, Sept. 11 at Starlight Stadium.
For Pacific, Saturday marks its first-ever home playoff game. The semifinals were one-offs last season and Pacific posted wins in Calgary and Hamilton en route to the title.
“To play in big significant games, it’s why we play the game,” said Pacific attacking midfielder Josh Heard. “To be able to do it at home, it’s fantastic.”
Pacific lost its regular-season finale 1-0 at Cavalry, snapping a five-game unbeaten run (3-0-2). Pacific has experience in two-legged series from its CONCACAF League run this year, dispatching Jamaica’s Waterhouse 6-0 on aggregate before losing to Costa Rica’s Herediano.
Pacific forwards Gianni dos Santos, a Cape Verde international, and Djenairo Daniels, a Dutch youth international, were “day-to-day,” coach James Merriman said Friday.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, said defenders Macdonald Ngwa Niba and Ivan Perez are making progress from their injuries but won’t be ready Saturday.
Forge and Cavalry have history, having met in the 2019 league final won by Forge. It’s also a matchup of the only two remaining coaches from the league’s 2019 debut — Forge’s Bobby Smyrniotis and Cavalry’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
Forge was 2-1-1 against Cavalry this season, winning 2-1 last time out Sept. 10 in Hamilton.
The Hamilton-based side closed out the regular season with a 1-0 victory over HFX Wanderers but had won just two of 10 matches (2-5-3) before that.
Despite a rash of injuries in the back, Forge conceded a league-low 25 goals during the 28-game regular season.
Defender Daniel Krutzen, who missed most of the season recovering from a knee injury suffered last November in CONCACAF League play, will not be available for Forge on Saturday.
Defensive midfielder Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson moved into the Forge backline to fill the void at centre back, with assistant coach David Edgar — a former Canadian international defender — helping him adapt to the position.
“He’s been absolutely excellent in his role there. Every two, three weeks he’s got a different partner playing with him,” Smyrniotis said of Achinioti-Jonsson.
Forge has also been able to count on goalkeeper Triston Henry who tied Cavalry’s Marco Carducci for the league in shutouts with 10. Despite that, Henry did not make the list of three finalists for the league’s Golden Glove award.
“For me, he’s undoubtedly the top goalkeeper in this league,” said Smyrniotis.
The championship game will be played either Oct. 29 or 30 at the home of the highest remaining seed, with Ottawa, Forge and Cavalry all possible hosts.
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