The winter winds continue to blow through the Ottawa Valley, bringing with them snow and ice, layering foot upon foot of snow atop the turf at Lansdowne Park. While the temperature outside dips into the -20’s, inside general manager Julian De Guzman and newly appointed head coach Nikola Popovic have been working hard to assemble a squad for 2018. As the team has been put together piece by piece, brewing optimism and excitement among the Fury faithful; there is no doubt that both supporters and players will be excited for the campaign ahead.
The proposition of quality signings, returning fan favourites, and an assured exciting style of play, on top of, the Canadian talent brought in to the team, has Fury supporters gearing up for the forthcoming season with increased veracity and anticipation. While I also felt this increased level of enthusiasm with each new addition to the club, it was sitting down with Julian and Nikola, to discuss their blueprints for the upcoming season that has made me incredibly enthusiastic and optimistic for the season that lies ahead.
A New Era
Ottawa Fury will be entering what could be called their third era since turning professional four years ago. Marc Dos Santos was the architect of the early Fury years, setting the tone in 2014 and bringing the club to the championship final in 2015. Paul Dalglish ushered in the second era for Fury. He brought in a lot of change but struggled to find success. Dalglish left the club just over halfway through his second campaign. He brought in players such as Callum Irving, Steevan Dos Santos, Sito Seoane and Gerardo Bruna, all of whom are part of the core that De Guzman has retained for 2018.
With Dalglish departing in August, it allowed De Guzman the opportunity to take over the role as head coach and get a general grasp of what the role entails. In his short time with Fury (2 years) De Guzman has played the role of club captain/player, assistant manager, interim head coach and now general manager. When asked about the changing roles, De Guzman said “I’ve had a lot to learn, about the players, the team, and most importantly about myself. The more and more I watch, the more I listen to the players and how happy they are, the more I start to miss the game, but me missing the game is a good sign of it going in the right direction”
The decision to take the role as general manager and appoint Nikola Popovic as head coach is one that was fully backed by the club, and will allow for De Guzman to focus on building the roster, ensuring the squad is built for success, while Popovic can focus on implementing his attractive and successful style of play. “Having the support of the club has allowed this to happen” said De Guzman, “You don’t find this opportunity very often, so I’m very honoured”
Popovic’s influence and addition cannot be understated, with De Guzman putting a lot of faith and confidence in the coach. “Before Niko came on board, I think the main objective was just to make the playoffs. That’s still great news, but there’s better news now; there is that winning mentality he brings to the locker room. Having Nikola, who is a strong believer of good Canadian players who can bring success; I’m a big fan of that, I’m about that.” And thus the third era, the De Guzman/Popovic era, begins.
Building For Success
At first glance I was a bit unsure of how the split responsibilities would actually work in Ottawa, in this league, at this level. However it was clear to me right away that both De Guzman and Popovic are not only on the same page, but appear to be reading along in tandem. While their roles are fairly defined, there is a natural overlap that is taking place. De Guzman will have a style of play he would like Popovic to implement; while Popovic will have players he would like De Guzman to bring in to the club. The important factor being that both manager and coach appear to have full faith and respect for each other and one common goal – building success.
When asked about his style of play, Popovic said “This model is built to try to win according to a certain style, and this style requires a profile player for every position. We need a player with certain characteristics, and this is what we are trying to find. Julian has already done this with some players, and we are now going to see if he can bring some more aboard. Who we are choosing is always according to this idea and this philosophy of good football.” This is fairly different from the mentality of versatility that Dalglish had practiced when building his rosters; bringing in players who can play multiple roles, thus cutting down on roster size and allowing for coverage in case of injury.
While there are still several more additions to be made to the club before they kick off their 2018 campaign, it’s clear that De Guzman and Popovic are happy to take their time in selecting signings to ensure they get the right profiles for the right roles. The core part of the roster is set, and apart from depth signings, Fury are likely just one or two signings away from having their March starting XI in place.
A Blueprint For Canadian Soccer
It’s no secret to anyone following Canadian soccer that we are on the cusp of something unique and special for the game in this country, a league of our own; the Canadian Premier League. While speculation continues to swirl around what clubs could be included in the inaugural season, including Fury, De Guzman is less concerned about 2019, and more concerned about what Fury can accomplish for Canadian soccer in 2018, in the USL.
“I think what Ottawa has here is very exclusive, and very unique” said De Guzman. “For any Canadian to come to a professional game to watch their hometown play, in the fastest growing league in the world [USL], I think that’s something to be proud of. If we could continue to see those numbers increase that just shows great pride, and a great future for the game in this country.” Although De Guzman is focused on Fury in the USL, he did say he is happy to see the game “grow in the direction I’ve always dreamt” and that “this is a great opportunity for Canadians to stand together and really achieve this in full.”
The Fury roster already has several notable Canadians aboard, including Nana Attakora, Callum Irving, Maxime Crepeau, Maxim Tissot, Carl Haworth, Eddie Edward and Jamar Dixon. De Guzman said he will not sign players simply because they are Canadian, but that “we want a solid base of Canadians that can help the team succeed; a reference for Canadian soccer.” De Guzman also hopes to see these Canadians earn international caps while with Ottawa, with many having already earned caps in the past few years.
Part of building the game isn’t just building a winning team or a roster full of Canadians, it’s also about building the culture around the club, and this is something that isn’t lost on either De Guzman or Popovic. “If you want to create a winning mentality, it’s not only about the general manager, the coach, the players, the media; it’s about a fan base” said Popovic before going on to echo what De Guzman had said, saying “we have to be watching this club in the future like a reference; like a Canadian football reference, and this can only be accomplished if we all stay together. If we all stay together we can create something very beautiful here in Ottawa. I think in terms of quality, you’ve got to have that, but of course there is the culture part we have to accomplish.”
Treading forward it’s easy to get over excited, but it’s important to stay optimistic about what is coming out of Lansdowne Park. When asked about what they hope to accomplish this year, De Guzman simply replied “Well… there’s four opportunities to win trophies” – referring to the USL Eastern Conference, USL Regular Season, USL Championship [playoffs] and the coveted Voyageurs Cup. “You can feel good vibrations” De Guzman continued, “We don’t want to get too excited, but I strongly believe we have solid individuals who can make a winning team. I suspect there could be a lot of surprises, in a good way, coming this season.”
Popovic was also cautiously optimistic, saying “It’s very good we have optimism, and the energy is very good, but we have to understand the USL is a very difficult competition. The club comes from two years of not having success and we have to bring back this winning mentality. The only thing we can promise is they will be a very competitive team, very well organized, and we will fight every single game to the end; this is what I can promise you.”
While the USL is something that Popovic is very familiar with, he seems to also have a strong focus on the Voyageurs Cup, stating “Of course we know, first we have a difficult game. Don’t think that it’s easy to play against a lower division team. Believe me, for the MLS team, it’s going to be difficult to play us if it comes to the semi-final. It’s a very, very strong competition but believe me, we will be competitive.” It’s great to see the coach having a very competitive and respectful view of a competition that supporters hold dear, and there is no doubt he has done lengthy research into Fury’s opponents in 2018. Fury have twice managed to defeat MLS sides at home in the Voyageurs Cup, and both De Guzman and Popovic said they hope to repeat that, and improve on the road.
The team are currently in the midst of their second week of pre-season preparations, with De Guzman hoping to add a few of the trialists to the fulltime roster. This means there will likely be a few more additions outside of the trialists, with over five weeks to go until the beginning of the season. Fury are known to be playing at least one pre-season game against Nashville at the IMG Academy in Florida on February 23rd, and will likely play a few more matches locally as they have in previous training camps.
Fury FC begins the season with four matches on the road, before hosting North Carolina FC on April 21st in their home opener. They will play their first match in the Voyageurs Cup, away, to the winner of round 1 (Oakville Blue Devils/AS Blainville) on June 20th, before hosting the second leg on June 27th. Follow Northern Starting XI and myself on Twitter for all your Fury news and analysis.