Fairytale run ends but Ottawa Fury still turning heads

Ottawa-Fury's-Jamar-Dixon-(right)-takes-a-shot-on-goal-as-Toronto-FC-forward-Eriq-Zavaleta-tries-to-block-his-shot-during-first-half-Canadian-Championship-semifinal-second-leg-action-in-Toronto-on-Wednesday,-May-31,-2017.-(Chris-Young/CP)

Ottawa Fury's Jamar Dixon (right) takes a shot on goal as Toronto FC forward Eriq Zavaleta tries to block his shot during first half Canadian Championship semifinal second leg action in Toronto on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — Changes can be difficult, but sometimes they can lead to greater things. The Ottawa Fury can attest to that after the last 12 months they have experienced.

The NASL’s future was up in the air last year. Clubs were jumping ship to the USL, some teams were losing money and a few teams were questioning whether they would also exit the league.

The Fury opted to leave the NASL in October — less than one year after reaching the Soccer Bowl — and joined the USL, which was granted second-division status by U.S. Soccer.

Ottawa opened the 2017 season with just one win in its first eight games. However, the Fury managed to progress to their second straight Canadian championship semifinal after knocking out the NASL’s FC Edmonton 4-2 on aggregate.

The two victories over their Canadian counterparts seemingly ignited the Fury. They followed those up with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over TFC at TD Place a couple weeks later.

Unfortunately for the Fury, the fairytale run came to an end on Wednesday. TFC defeated Ottawa 4-0 in the second leg, but the USL side is still pleased with their efforts.

“I thought we were the more dangerous team for 35 minutes tonight,” head coach Paul Dalglish told Sportsnet. “We had better chances and with a little bit of luck, we could have took them. But when they had the amount of possession that they did, they ground us down with possession. We worked as hard as we could, but ultimately in the end, those spaces opened up and that’s when they punished us at the end when we got tired, lost our discipline and lost our shape, really.”

The loss on Wednesday may have been humbling, but reaching this stage with their significantly lower resources is a huge achievement. Dalglish says no player makes the MLS minimum salary of $60,000 per year and the Fury don’t have the funding to go on long pre-season trips. Therefore, they have to train in domes during the harsh winter months, hence their slow start to the season.

“It’s something that you’ve got to accept being in Canada that it’s very, very difficult to compete with teams that are training outside and are competing in tournaments,” said Dalglish. “We can’t even get outside until April. So it’s tough. It’s normal to have slow starts.”

However, it appears as if Ottawa has turned a corner. Including Wednesday’s match, the Fury lost just twice in the month of May and continue to make strides in the Canadian championship.

The Fury managed to grab a 2-0 win in the first leg of the semifinals last year against the Vancouver Whitecaps before losing the return game 3-0 at BC Place. Couple that with a first-leg victory over last year’s MLS Cup finalists, and they are slowly turning heads in the nation’s capital.

“It’s something we want to do,” said Dalglish. “We’re trying to grow the game in Ottawa. We’re a new franchise so we want to try and make sure that we bring MLS-quality opposition to Ottawa each year, so we take it very, very seriously. But so do Edmonton, so for us to get past Edmonton in the first round is a massive achievement both years. To beat a team of TFC’s quality, and deservedly beat them in the first game, is incredible for our guys.”

The Fury’s emergence in the Ottawa market has led to some marquee signings. Canadian international Jamar Dixon joined the club last summer after spending more than two years in Finland. Former Vancouver Whitecaps Residency goalkeeper Callum Irving — who arrived this past winter — has become one of the USL’s top goalkeepers as well.

The Canadian content has been on full display this year. The Canadian Soccer Association instituted a new regulation that at least three Canadians have to start in the Canadian championship.

Dixon was one of the starters for his hometown club in these semifinals. Having watched the tournament over the years, the 27-year-old was thrilled to get an opportunity to play in the competition.

“I know words can’t describe it to be honest with you,” said Dixon. “This is a tournament I’ve been wanting to play in for a while. I’ve watched it for many years and to get to this round, it would’ve been a blessing to win a game in the first round, but we got here. Playing TFC on a big stage like this, it’s amazing. The thing is, anything could’ve happened. We could’ve won the game and we could’ve went to the finals. It wasn’t like we came in here saying ‘we’re going to lose.’ We all believed we could do it. We worked hard during the week.

“I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of the coaching staff, I’m proud of everyone. It’s a blessing to be here and I’m truly thankful for that.”

Now that Ottawa is eliminated, it can focus solely on its USL season. It was a difficult winter, but given the rise of the USL and the partnership with MLS, the club is ecstatic to be a part of the league.

“The USL is the fastest-growing league in the world,” proclaimed Dalglish. “Ever since the partnership with MLS, the growth we haven’t seen in American soccer since David Beckham came. When David Beckham came to America, we had an unbelievable growth in MLS. When MLS partnered with the USL, we’ve seen unbelievable growth in the USL.

“The most exciting thing about the USL is that it’s getting better and better and better all the time.”

The Fury will return home and take some harsh lessons with them. However, there is no doubt their resilience will serve them well as they continue to settle into their new surroundings.

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