In the City of the Fury: Review of 2015

Me verás volar                   (You’ll see me fly)

Por la ciudad de la furia  (Through the city of the fury)

Donde nadie sabe de mi  (Where no one knows me)

Y yo soy parte de todos    (And, I am one of many)

– En la ciudad de la furia, Soda Stereo

Buenos Aires, the subject of the song by Argentinian super group Soda Stereo, is a city defined by its energy, passion and at times overflowing anger. So, basically the opposite of Ottawa. In the City of the Boring; In the City of the Quiet; In the City of the Cold; all once possible titles for a song about our beautiful yet frustratingly reserved city. Once and hopefully never again. Ottawa is becoming the City of the Fury, our Fury. Despite a heart-wrenching defeat last week in the NASL Soccer Bowl Final, 2015 marks our transformation.

In 2013, John Pugh and his Ottawa Sports Entertainment Group partners set out to make the Ottawa Fury into a professional soccer team. At times hiding in the shadows of OSEG’s other property the Redblacks, the Fury struggled to find an identity through its first season in the North American Soccer League.

MDS and his vision for the Ottawa Fury

Putting together a team from scratch is not an easy task. The job went to one man: Marc Dos Santos. Remarkably, he was treated as an ‘unknown’ in some quarters. Those who paid attention to the pre-MLS Montreal Impact knew better. The signs of quality were there from the start. His honest ease with people has always belied an underlying intensity.

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In a short conversation with Marc recently after his arrival in Ottawa he had hinted at underlying personal motivations for taking the job. Without a hint bitterness Marc described how despite his success with a top youth squad at Brazilian powerhouse Palmeiras, he realized he would never be given a chance to manage a professional team in the country. His problem was that he is Canadian. Always realistic in a still young career Marc has shown a strength of making the very best out of what he has been given. And as a passionate Canadian tired of the image our country has made for itself in the world of soccer, MDS seized on the opportunity given to him by Pugh to make the Fury into a competitive Canadian team.

While MDS’ journey will continue on in Kansas City, his vision poured the foundation for our club. The “4-3-3” formation became the moniker for a style of play that has been imprinted at the roots of the Fury’s two academy teams. Dos Santos often mentioned how he looked for defining characteristics in the players he brought in during his tenure. Intensity, more than any other word, characterizes the MDS vision.

Paul Dalglish, the recently announced manager, will be tasked with stoking the fire that burns at the heart of the club, fuelling the intensity of warriors. We welcome Dalglish with open arms and know changes are inevitable. We only ask for the same earnest commitment to club, players, and city.

Ottawa’s first year was filled with disconnected glimpses of the MDS project. With a mixture of youth and experience, the Fury was forged from many players who, despite their talents, have struggled to make their mark at their previous clubs. At times the fluid passing exhilarated the crowd. More often than not, however, the play in the final third lacked creativity or brute intension. The optimistic could claim they saw what was coming; the realistic might have said there was a lot left to be desired in how the Fury was playing.

Fury’s evolution

The start of 2015 was accompanied by a familiar feeling. The Fury was better but so was the rest of the NASL. The goal of a play-off spot, put before the team by manager and owners, seemed to be slipping out of reach almost from the beginning. Failure in the Voyageurs’ Cup against Edmonton was a punch in the gut; two 3-1 losses. The NASL’s parity in the spring season, however, kept the Fury within striking distance. The lack of composure on the field against Edmonton was, in retrospect, a wake-up call for the Fury.

Several players have commented that the 3-1 loss to Fort Lauderdale Strikers at home on April 25th was the turning point. The club and players retreated to the basics. Astute soccer analysts might point out the multitude of details to the shift of the Fury’s 4-3-3, which was originally promised as a high-pressing possession oriented system. The Fury became in under two weeks a more defensive unit. Theo Gauthier sat down with Dos Santos in an interview before the semi-final where the most important detail of Dos Santos’ re-envisioning of the team was revealed: the Fury decided to surrender the high-press for zones of “aggression” to provide greater defensive stability. Most NASL commentators decried the ‘bus’ that the Fury brought with them, a cliche that ignored the fact that many things had not actually changed. Most importantly, the team’s fluid transition to a possession-oriented attack when controlling the ball allowed the Fury to score a second-best 37 goals in the Fall Season.

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For supporters, the 1-0 away loss to New York Cosmos on May 2nd is equally symbolic. The Cosmos have continuously assembled the most expensive team in the NASL since their creation in 2013 (trademark history aside). On May 2, the Cosmos hoped to make a marketing splash in Brooklyn. They hosted the Ottawa Fury at a baseball diamond. The touch line at one end was so close to a low concrete wall that the linesman had to caution players to slow up before they ran into a metal railing.

Six rioters had made the trip. Hipster tacos were almost the highlight of our otherwise singularly purposed away-day. Yet, the result was saved by the genuine humility of the Ottawa Fury players who came over to the third-base corner to salute the away support. With the slightest tone of embarrassment, Tommy Heinemann commented “Did you see how hard I hit that one? I almost scored.” Others had no words to justify the result, though we had asked for none. Their disappointment was deeper than ours. Looking back, the first pieces of the Fury’s transformation were coming together. The single Cosmos goal came from what was to become an uncharacteristic defensive error by Rafael Alves. Marc Dos Santos made a simple commitment to the six, a promise to every Fury supporter: “We will turn this around.”

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New York would be the last team to score on the Fury in the Spring Season. Five clean sheets in a row plus one to start Fall Season set an NASL record for Romuald Peiser. Yet the Fury still had a major problem, in those five matches the team only scored once.

Team – at the heart of the Fury

Therefore there is no one more emblematic of the realization of Dos Santos’ promise than Tommy Heinemann. At the start of the year, some joked how at how fit he was, most were slightly concerned about the lanky striker’s strength on the ball. Caught offside too often and not successful enough in the air, we wondered where the “animal” was being caged. Over the summer break, Albayrak and Hassan were added to the Fury. All of a sudden, the Fury had the most depth at the striker position. The fifteen goals Tommy promised before the start of the season were out of reach but a spark was ignited. Wherever the credit lies for his transformation, the emergence of Soopah Tom matches the rise of the Fury.

By the fall season, offside calls were rare for Tommy, each ball lobbed forward was met with a battle in the air, and defenders rarely received a second to think when Ottawa was pressing. Heinemann alone, however, did not remake the Fury. The work of so many players was finally clicking. Wiedeman no longer laboured to reach a ball and his confidence grew. Ubiparipović remained focused for a full ’90 (and beyond). He was less prone to drifting out of the match. I’ve been told that “Ubi” translates from Serbian as “kill”, his ball control and passing opened many defences during the Fury’s charge. Paulo Jr., who had dazzled fans with his dribbling, began to really do what he needed to do: hit the target whether it was a cross or on the net. Oliver over came a series of calamities – the most extreme being the inflight strangling – to rediscover the composure that defined his breakout first year. Haworth was back to proving he belongs in the second division of North American soccer, exhibiting an unrelenting passion for the jersey. Albayrak and Hassan were often included as late substitutions and injections of pace or an alternative threat to the start of a match.

Behind a focus on the attacking players the Fury’s NASL dominance in the Fall was always built on its defensive teamwork. Here the too often unheralded workhorses made the biggest difference. Ryan Richter and Mason Trafford, the team’s universally accepted “nice guys”, were always on double duty. Over-lapping offensive runs and perfectly timed slide-tackles. Many of the zones of aggression fell within their purview, supported by back tracking of the wingers.

The on-the-field bromance of Falves in the centre left little love for opposing strikers. No one was safe. In the 1-0 loss to the Cosmos in May, the highlight was actually Colin Falvey swooping in to strip the ball from Raúl with a perfectly targeted power-slide, leaving no chance for the notoriously floppy striker. That became typical of his Fall performances. Rafael Alves controlled whichever box he was in. Perhaps surprising to the opposition, the Fury went on to collect the Fair-Play award for picking up the least amount of cards in the league. For MDS, the award signified the disciplined aggression that the team had cultivated.

The one area in which the Fury began the year with a clear advantage was in the midfield, though the team was without Richie Ryan to start. Badly timed injuries to Paterson in July and de Guzman away on international duty, however, challenged the team. A very unfortunate Nicki Paterson, who was one of the few players on point in the spring, was lost to a torn ACL and removed him from the squad. Nicki’s ongoing commitment to the team, a constant presence at matches and in training, however was incredible.

The quality of Julian de Guzman is only questioned by the ignorant with no apologies to those people. One of Canada’s best players ever, he is admittedly a step slower than in his prime, but his football IQ and on-the-ball calm are undeniable. We knew the Canadian Goose came to the Ottawa Fury to keep his match fitness for the national team. I suspect he encountered something that has been rare in his professional career: a strong team dynamic. In Ottawa, he was never required to be more than one of eleven; his contributions on any pitch have often been deceptive but regularly crucial.

A self-described leader of few words, Richie Ryan was over-and-over tasked with settling the Fury. It is no secret the Fury improved dramatically when he returned in the Spring from injury. Those in the locker room and on the field truly understand his influence.

Ryan’s guidance has helped to make Mauro Eustáquio into one of Canada’s most promising talents. Mauro is the player we all want to see more, his quality on the ball suggests a maturity that denies his youth. Mauro’s goal against San Antonio Scorpions, a low shot from range after picking up the ball from a heel flick by de Guzman, is one of my favourites but it’s his growing awareness in the centre of the pitch that is most important.

I only need to offer one word to describe Romuald Peiser: fußballgott.

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Players like Drew Beckie and Brandon Poltronieri who saw less minutes on the field no doubt made their own important contributions, pushing their teammates to stay focused and to dig deeper. Beckie had the difficult task of being the most versatile player on the team, often called upon to cover on defence and in the midfield. No other team in the NASL credits their camaraderie more than the Ottawa Fury, their strength of friendship and overall commitment to each other.

Finding our Fury and going to the Soccer Bowl

We supporters were gifted with the combined effort of the team during a Fall Season where the Fury posted a record of 13-6-1 and over turned a 9 point deficit to tie the NY Cosmos on the combined table with 56 points. Within the supporters’ Section W there was never a sense of entitlement towards the NASL Fall Season Championship. Each match was a battle on the field that required careful attention. Complacency to success and a winning arrogance are toxic traits. No one should lose sight of what we experienced: in each match this year the Fury needed to earn their victory. Next year will be more of the same.

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There is also a simple truth: as much as the Fury grew on the field, finding what it is to be a “Fury” supporter and what the team means in our city has taken its time. I’ll be bold and say we got a small glimpse of the “intensity” Marc spoke of finally reaching the people in the stands during the ruckus end to the home-match versus Minnesota United in August. A poorly judged foul led to a free-kick in the ’89 minute. The resulting goal was followed by an onrush of Minnesota players in celebration. The bench cleared in the direction of Section W to celebrate. One Loon, who went as far to gesture a challenge to the fans, was met with a small barrage of beer cans. The cans came from a few sections but the W was in focus. Next day, a number of phone calls to the club that expressed a fear of “soccer hooliganism” prompted a more coordinated response.

Supporters could have been abandoned. We do not necessarily fit the ‘family friendly’ marketing techniques taught at sports management programs. OSEG’s reaction was measured. Acknowledging that no one wants to see things thrown onto the field there was a simple truth worth admitting: people actually cared. No longer going through the motions, it felt like a misdirected moment built upon a genuine passion.

The next match against the New York Cosmos was the first time Section W was filled to capacity. Through September the rest of the lower south-side followed, regularly pushing the attendance over 6000 for the first time. The Fury have the best stadium in the NASL but it is a large 24 000-seater built for the Canadian Football League. It will take time for the Fury to reach Lansdowne’s limits but we know the potential. During the Women’s World Cup, Lansdowne hosted matches filled with 20 000+ interested soccer fans. Now imagine how intimidating our house in the middle of the Glebe will be when that number is united behind the single purpose of supporting the Fury.

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When Minnesota returned for the semi-finals of the Soccer Bowl, the stage was set for an epic match. The post-season match was needed to attract the city’s media attention. And there was no other opponent in the NASL this year that demanded Ottawa’s fury. The day was filled with nervous energy for those who’ve become attached to Ottawa’s team. The north side was opened for ticket sales and the crowd swelled close to 10 000. For the first time, a professional soccer game felt like an intimate experience, the air impregnated with a sense of anticipation, the volume rising to meet the opening whistle.

It started off frenetic, the Fury pushing a high-line, pressing with intensity, and creating early chances. Minnesota, ironically, found itself in the position of counter-attack. The penalty call came unexpectedly in the seventh minute. What had been rage and half-hope that Peiser would save us once again turned into silence when Christian Ramirez put the ball in the back of the net. It took two seconds for the collective breath to spawn a chant of O-F, F-C!

Section W has a very small repertoire of songs that are able to properly respond to the emotional mood of the stadium; at this moment, more than others, the yet to be developed aspects of the supporters culture in Ottawa were exposed. It was the players that responded with greater intensity and clear sense of purpose. With each ball that careened achingly close to Minnesota’s goal it was as if the team was willing the stadium back into the match. I ran out of fingers (or my ability to concentrate) on the numbers of chances created by the Fury in the first half but when half-time was called I couldn’t help but fear that the day just did not belong to Ottawa.

It took two minutes in the return of play for Tommy Heinemann to score. Paulo Jr. placed the ball onto the chest of Heinemann, who pivoted and in two steps drove the ball into the low corner. The celebration was frenetic and unexpected. Those who missed it might have learnt to be back to their section before the start of the half.

For the rest of second half, Ottawa pressed forward looking for the winning goal. The battle in the midfield was often messy but one player was having a match of his life: Tommy Heinemann was serenaded multiple times with “Sooopah Tom”. The Section W ritual will likely not to be heard in 2016 with word that Tommy is off to Tampa Bay.

Fury’s triopoly of midfield merchants was repeatedly battered by a physical Minnesota. Ubi, Ryan, and de Guzman are all veteran players and their understanding and ability to respond to the context was unparalleled. Ryan, returning from an injury, acted as the general, Ubi the creative mind, and the Goose as utility man, at times a second defensive midfielder and others as a diminutive false-nine. Not for lack of chances for the Fury, it was a shared sentiment that the match would go beyond the ninety minutes.

Marc Dos Santos must’ve had a similar expectation. In the previous week against Atlanta the complete midfield was rested. Against Minnesota the Fury had only made one substitution in the 90′: Oliver came on for Wiedeman in the 85′. Haworth came on for Paulo Jr. in the 96′.And, De Guzman was replaced in 105′, a full match for the captain of Canada who was going be leaving for international duty. His replacement Mauro Eustáquio brought pace and energy to the midfield. Inside the second extra-time, Ubiparipovic delivered the pass of the season, a looping ball over the defence to an onrushing Heinemann who placed the ball beyond Sammy Ndjock for the second time.

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I can remember collapsing onto my friends, both new and old. A few tears trickled down my cheek. Supporter culture, in my mind, is at its best when it embraces its suffering in anticipation of its moments of pure joy. In the Fury’s short history Heinemann’s goal at 110′ is the club’s most emotional, powerful and memorable strikes.

It could have been replaced a week later in New York in the final of the Soccer Bowl. Stony Monday Riot once again made the trip to New York, this time accompanied by nearly one hundred supporters and a large contingent from the Bytown Boys on two buses graciously organized and supported by the club. Away-days are unique privileges that are particularly rare in the NASL given the distances between most teams. For the club, I think the opportunity to work with the supporters groups in organizing the trip underlined their growing appreciation of what soccer culture means in Ottawa.

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Following the narrative promoted by the NASL, the final result was almost pre-written: a 3-2 victory for the Cosmos at home over the plucky upstarts from Canada as Raúl and Senna walk off into the sunset. It was the marketing coupe that both the Cosmos and League wanted. Full credit should go to the Cosmos’ manager Giovanni Savarese who were the better prepared team on the day but I don’t believe they were the better club in the year. The loss still stings but it cannot eclipse so many positives on the year.

Intensity, Passion, and Community

I can’t help but think of how the contrast between the two clubs illuminates those positives.

Ottawa Fury, as a “football club”, have done a lot of things right in two years: hired a guy who’d become the 2015 NASL Coach of the Year. MDS needed to be frugal but effective with the money he was given to assemble the team. His other team: Martin Nash, Bruce Grobbelaar, Philip Dos Santos, Darko Buser have helped to shape three levels of men’s soccer to their shared vision. Ottawa’s player training and support staff are the best in the league and work with a level of professionalism that players often comment on. The long-term prospect of the Fury Academy has started to take shape; another difficult year in the PLSQ also showed signs of the growing maturity of many players. We’ve yet to see a youth player fully transition to playing with the first team but that day is likely to come soon.

The Cosmos are only half a season older than the Fury but because of their comparatively massive budget for players’ wages they are considered perennial favourites. Walking into their home, however, inspired a sense of ambiguity. The club promotes an identity thirty years gone with pretensions of being the representative of North America’s most affluent city. Yet this mythology encounters its own reality in Hempstead. The Cosmos play in the mismatched stadium of Hofstra University situated in a working-class multicultural suburb on Long Island far from the centre of New York. The fan-base, who have carved out their own identity within the overarching brand “Cosmos”, was undoubtedly cultivated here. A full applause to the NY fans and supporters because behind the glue-stick glitter and the Emirates sponsorship there is a NASL club that is more honest and maybe respectable.

Ottawa Fury FC, on the other hand, did not inherit a clear identity, a history, or recognizable trademark. John Pugh came with the name but “fury” always struck me as uncharacteristic of Ottawa. Without a coherent media strategy, the Ottawa Fury have yet to put forward their version of a brand identity. In the first year and from a marketing perspective this seemed like a major misstep. In that absence however, the opportunity has been given to the fans and supporters within the Fury community to define the club for themselves.

The Fury crafted by its fans and supporters is, to carry forward Marc Dos Santos’ vision, coming to be defined by three words: intensity, passion, and community.

This year Section W raised a banner in support of welcoming refugees, joining many European football teams in expressing a similar hope for humanitarian unity. We also raised money for Matthew House, a local charity that has helped to resettle refugees from all corners of the world here in Ottawa. As the issue has become more politicly charged in Canada, I think the supporter’s message remains the same, we believe in a strong Ottawa community that is welcoming to everyone. Similarly the solidarity expressed with France before the Soccer Bowl final in New York reflects the strength of connections in our community.

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In the final minutes of the Soccer Bowl final with a deep sense of pride we raised a banner to the Ottawa Fury players that reads: “Always With You”. Through pounding headaches, tears, and lost voices we carried on the song, saving just enough to make the line “Fury, we’re always with you!” as loud as we could. To my knowledge it is the only footie song based on a Canadian melody and it expresses our underlying commitment to club and city that we strive to make.

Section W proclaimed in 2014 that “Ottawa’s got the Fury.” In 2015, together with the club we made several steps towards making Ottawa the city of the Fury.



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