Heading into the NASL’s Fall Season, Ottawa Fury FC had every reason to fail.
A second-year expansion club, Ottawa has nowhere near the financial muscle of those that they compete with, a fact that was quite apparent in a lackluster Spring campaign. Then, just as the team got rolling, head coach Marc Dos Santos announced that he was set to depart at the conclusion of the NASL season.
No one would have been surprised if Ottawa laid down, but they didn’t, despite everything they were up against.
Ottawa clinched the NASL Fall crown last week, pushing the team’s record to 13-1-5 in the most recent season after going 2-3-5 in a Spring Season that yielded a ninth-place finish. The trophy, Ottawa’s first, completes a remarkable turnaround that will see the club play in front of a home crowd when the NASL postseason kicks off.
“It’s just rewarding after so much work and so many hours,” Dos Santos told SBI. “It’s rewarding afterwards to see us winning something. That’s what makes it emotional. It’s after a lot of work and relying on us becoming a team. It makes it emotional for us as a team because we were the best team in the Fall Season and I think it’s totally deserved.”
“It was a little bit surreal,” captain Richie Ryan, who was forced to watch the clinching game from home due to injury, told SBI. “The fact that, in the second season, nobody expected anything from us this year. Only in our second season, it’s a massive achievement.”
That achievement could have easily been derailed by the impending departure of Dos Santos.
At the conclusion of the NASL campaign, Dos Santos will move to a team that he calls “one of the top three clubs in MLS,” with numerous reports linking the head coach with an assistant role at Sporting KC.
According to Dos Santos, the group took the departure well as a team. While admitting that it is a bit cliche, Dos Santos insists that the team is legitimately more than a group of colleagues; they’re a group of friends. That bond was crucial in helping push through the initial disappointment, as players understood how much there was still to play for.
Now several months removed from the decision, Ottawa has posted a record 6-1 since Dos Santos revealed the news. As such, Dos Santos has no regrets or reservations, especially given what has occurred since his departure became public.
“I always had in my heart one objective: when I go to Ottawa, I have two years on my contract and in those two years I want to build a strong team that’s going to be respected in North America,” Dos Santos said. “When I leave the club, I want to leave something strong in Ottawa, a team that is respected and a name of the a club that is respected because it was able to achieve something.
“I’m leaving with that feeling of mission accomplished, regardless of what happens until the last day of the season. I feel that we’re a club that’s respected and I’m very confident with the future.”
According to Ryan, that future began from the moment Dos Santos joined the club. As one of the club’s first ever signings, Ryan has seen from the beginning that Dos Santos had that special belief that Ottawa could be one of the top teams out there, even if many both inside or outside of the team never felt quite the same.
Competing against teams with the financial muscle of the New York Cosmos and Minnesota United, it was hard to imagine Ottawa making waves within just two seasons. Yet, Dos Santos saw it from the second the club began to take shape.
“I remember when he signed me for the club,” Ryan said. “He said to me, ‘We’ll win. We’ll win soon and we’ll win it here together.’ I sort of thought, ‘yeah, I hope so,’ but I didn’t really think it could happen. Obviously, now it has. For it to happen within two years, I don’t think anybody apart from Marc has seen it coming, to be honest.”
“For me, it wasn’t hard to realize that he might be moving on,” Ryan added. “It could have affected us in a big way, but the group up here that we have, we know that by winning games and matches, it’s going to put us all in a better position as individuals and as a team. Marc spoke to us before the news came out and told us his situation, and he knows he’s moving on, but his objective never changed once. ”
However, that objective hasn’t been fully completed. Dos Santos says that he is proud that Ottawa has claimed a trophy but the club has yet to claim the main prize — the NASL Soccer Bowl Trophy.
That objective will have to wait until Nov. 8, the date of the NASL final. Depending on the results of the league’s final clashes, that road could go through Ottawa, a prospect that excited both Ryan and Dos Santos.
For now, though, it’s about continuing what has been built in the past two years, a process that could yield a championship that seemed all too unlikely just several months ago.
“I never get into a project just to compete,” Dos Santos added. “I think from day one, we have to build a winning team. We knew we had limitations in the budget, but we knew we had a very clear vision of what we wanted the team to be about.
“Am I surprised? For me to be very honest with you, when we think about our work, that tells me not too be surprised about what’s happening.”