It’s one of the best stories in Canadian club soccer of 2015.
While all three Canadian teams in Major League Soccer have already bowed out of the playoffs, the Ottawa Fury are one win away from claiming the championship in the North American Soccer League, a second-tier division that’s one level below MLS.
The Fury can win the league title by beating the New York Cosmos in Sunday’s Soccer Bowl, and if they do it would cap off what’s been an incredible year for the capital club.
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The NASL campaign is split into two seasons—spring and fall. After finishing ninth (out of 11 teams) in the spring with a 2-5-3 record, the Fury finished first in the fall, winning 13 of 20 games with just one loss. Ottawa advanced to the Soccer Bowl, the NASL’s championship, after beating Minnesota United in a playoff game last weekend, setting a new league record with a crowd of 9,346 fans in attendance at TD Place Stadium.
The win over Minnesota extended Ottawa’s unbeaten streak to 13 games, tying the NASL record. Ottawa has also lost just one of its last 26 matches, with 15 wins and 10 draws.
It’s an amazing turnaround when you consider the Fury’s mediocre form during the spring season. Even when things weren’t going so well, the players didn’t panic, always believing in what coach Marc Dos Santos calls his “model of play” that stresses defensive organization and possession-based attacking.
“We never lost belief in ourselves,” Ottawa defender Mason Trafford told Sportsnet.
“That’s been the strength in our team, and even on a bigger scale as a club as a whole, is that Marc had a model of play. Everything from how we play on the field, to the type of players he recruits, to how guys conduct themselves on and off the pitch—we try to stay very consistent no matter what happens. We’ve always believed we have the players to play in that model.
“There may be a bad run of results, but we knew we’d get it right and once we did we’d be unstoppable. That’s how we’ve grown this year and got into this position we now find ourselves in.”
Perhaps no one person on the roster better exemplifies the trust the players have in Dos Santos than Trafford, a native of British Columbia who has earned one cap for Canada.
A 29-year-old veteran who’s played professionally in Finland and China, Trafford joined Ottawa in 2014 and was one of the club’s regular starting centre backs during its debut NASL season.
Trafford made 27 starts and logged 2346 minutes of playing time last year, but Dos Santos thought the team needed an upgrade at centre back, so he signed Brazilian Rafael Alves and Colin Favley of Ireland for the 2015 season. Trafford was on the bench for the first few games before he played at left fullback in a game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in May, a position he ended up making his own, starting 26 games and scoring one goal. Trafford was rewarded by having his contract through 2017.
“He was fantastic in his attitude. The door opened for him to play left fullback and once he got into that first game, he didn’t let go of it,” Dos Santos said of Trafford.
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Spanish legend Raul, formerly of Real Madrid, and Marcos Senna, a key member of Spain’s Euro 2008-winning side, play for the Cosmos, and both will retire following Sunday’s match at New York’s stadium. The Cosmos 11-3-1 at home in 2015, with Ottawa being the only club to defeat them at James M. Shuart Stadium in the last two years.
Ottawa and New York split the season series in 2015, with one win apiece and a draw, and they finished tied for first place in the overall NASL standings when combining the spring and fall seasons. If recent history is any indication, Sunday’s Soccer Bowl should be tightly contested.
“It’s definitely one of the tougher teams we play all year. We take a very humble approach before every game but we go in with the mentality that we’re the bets team in the league,” Trafford stated.
“We respect New York, but we’re the Ottawa Fury, and we made it to the final and finished as high as we did in the table for a reason.”
And don’t expect Trafford or is defensive cohorts to be overawed by playing against an icon such as Raul.
“He’s a fantastic player. He has the reputation and he has the name Raul, so we all know what he’s done. But at the same time, he’s not an alien. He has two legs. He’s the same as us,” Trafford offered.
“He has extra quality but every time we’ve played him I don’t think anybody could say ‘Oh my gosh! Raul destroyed the Fury,’ or ‘He’s impossible to mark.’ If we do our regular job against him then he’s not overly concerning for us.”