Three hundred and sixty-four days. This Saturday, when Atlético Ottawa play the first home match in club history, it’ll be almost exactly a year since the team’s first-ever game on August 15, 2020.
This weekend’s clash with HFX Wanderers FC at TD Place Stadium (3 pm ET) has been a long time coming, ever since the CPL’s youngest club was first unveiled on February 11, 2020. At last, though, the Canadian Premier League is poised to arrive in the nation’s capital — and with gusto, apparently.
Atlético Ottawa CEO Fernando Lopez informed CanPL.ca on Tuesday that over 10,000 tickets had already been distributed for the home opener, which is likely to set a record for professional soccer attendance in Ottawa. It’ll be the first outdoor sporting event with fans that the city has hosted since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Understandably, to say that people around Atlético Ottawa are excited for Saturday would be an understatement.
“We can’t even put it in words,” Lopez said. “This is everything we have been working for over the last 18 months. We launched the club and we were supposed to play our first home game after, I don’t know, one month or something like that because we were just about to start preseason. And then suddenly everything changes, and almost two years after we’re back and playing our first home game.”
The past 18 months or so have certainly been challenging for the fledgling club. How can a brand-new team engage its local community when it can’t even play there? Atleti trained at its home stadium of TD Place for the first time ever just two weeks ago, having already played the 2020 CPL season in Prince Edward Island and started the 2021 campaign in a similar bubble in Winnipeg. Plus, they spent their entire preseason this year in Spain at the facilities of parent organization Atlético de Madrid — all of which adds up to a lot of time sequestered together, but none of it in Ottawa.
Midfielder Chris Mannella, who signed for the club in April 2021, is actually one of the few in the organization who has played in the city before, which he did in two strong seasons with the now-defunct Ottawa Fury in 2018 and 2019. He explained that the club has done all it can do try and engage the local community from afar — phone calls to season ticket holders, social media interactions, and so on — but none of it comes close to the personal connections a local club can make when they’re, well, actually local.
According to him, there’s a very special feeling to being at home that can’t quite be matched on the road or in empty stadiums.
“When I walked through that tunnel for the first time coming back to training it brought back some weird memories for me,” Mannella said this week. “You know, friendships I’ve made that are gonna last a lifetime. People I’ve met and people that I’ve come across. For me what I’m looking forward to most, honestly, is walking through that tunnel on a matchday, when you walk with your back towards the fans and then you can turn around for the anthem and just kind of see, whether it be friends, family or fans, that’s what I’m looking forward to most.”
That feeling of excitement is uniform across the players and staff of Atlético Ottawa, many of whom will have very little experience with the city they technically represent. For a small handful of Ottleti players, though, this homecoming has a little extra meaning.
Antoine Coupland, for instance — the club’s 17-year-old phenom who hails from Chelsea, Québec, about a 30-minute drive from TD Place — has been waiting to return home for quite a while. He had a brief taste of the professional life in 2019, when he appeared three times for the Fury as a 15-year-old, but ever since signing as the second-ever player in Atlético Ottawa history (making him now the club’s longest-tenured player, technically), he’s been eager to get back out on that pitch at Lansdowne Park.
“I knew as soon as Atlético came that this would be where I’d want to continue my young professional career, and play — if you want to say in my backyard, in my hometown where I grew up, and for me it’s important to give back to the community,” Coupland said. “For all the young people in the Ottawa soccer community to be able to look up to me and to say, this is a pathway, this is possible to accomplish my dream of becoming a professional soccer player is definitely special. And one thing that I’m definitely looking forward to is reliving the atmosphere, feeling the crowd, all the people at TD Place, and to kind of relive the moment that felt so good when I was at the Fury.”
Whether or not Coupland actually sees the pitch on Saturday against HFX, he’s looking forward to the occasion. He revealed that, personally, he’s reserved almost 50 tickets for friends and family — including a few coming all the way from Québec City, who have yet to see him play as a professional.
Of course, waiting isn’t necessarily the right word for Atlético Ottawa’s lead-up to this moment. It’s not as though Saturday’s home opener, complete with raucous crowd, will descend fully-formed from the heavens; a lot of work has gone into preparing for this. Lopez himself revealed that he actually left the CPL bubble in Winnipeg early last month because there was simply too much to do. He credits club president Jeff Hunt, as well, for his role as a leader for the organization on the ground, especially in the past few weeks.
“I‘ve been really impressed with his leadership, his commitment to this project, and everything that he has made so far to make this club, successful, I think, that is one of the keys,” said Lopez. “If Saturday is a big celebration, I think that we owe a big one to Jeff’s efforts.”
Of course, it’s been important not to lose sight of what will make it all worthwhile. Mannella and Coupland, both of whom had a taste of the Ottawa fanbase during their time with the Fury, both expect the rest of the CPL to soon see just how passionate their community is.
“Clearly I came back for a reason,” Mannella said of Ottawa. “The fans are spectacular. They’re very good people from my experience, they back us basically through thick and thin, and obviously we’re seeing that now, they’re still supporting us. Just hearing about the numbers for Saturday is a testament to how much they’re willing to support us. This fanbase deserves a good team.”
The grandstand of TD Place is sure to be a strong demonstration of that fanbase this weekend. Atlético Ottawa has removed barriers to entry for all fans through the Pay What You Want initiative, which should ensure a packed house.
According to Lopez, that was vital for this first game: making the event a real celebration.
“I want to see people enjoy, because I know that it’s been a very tough year for everybody as well,” he said. “A tough two years for everybody, not just for Atlético Ottawa or for soccer players, I mean for the kids, especially since they’ve been at home without being able to go to school, be with their classmates and do normal things that kids do. A lot of people have lost their jobs too. So we created this initiative with the idea of giving back to the community and to our own city, something that they can enjoy after this dark period that we entered and we’re now at the end of the tunnel and can start to see some light.”
Now, all that’s left is for the club to put things together on the football pitch. Sitting at the bottom of the CPL table, Atlético Ottawa feel that this homecoming could be the start of something special, as it seems to have been for other clubs who have returned to their home turf recently.
“This can be a huge turning point for our entire season,” Mannella said.
Atlético Ottawa’s home opener kicks off at 3 pm ET this Saturday, August 14 vs. HFX Wanderers FC. Some tickets are still available here, or the game can be seen live on OneSoccer.