The city of Ottawa will see one of its professional sports teams go to the league championship for the first time since the Ottawa Senators met the Anaheim Ducks in the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals.
Granted, hockey is and always will be king in this part of North America, but don’t tell that to any of the NASL playoff record crowd of 9,346 who attended this NASL semifinal match on a frigid late afternoon at Lansdowne Park Stadium to watch their team overcome a 1-0 first half deficit to defeat Minnesota United FC 2-1 after extra time.
The Loons took an early 1-0 lead on a Christian Ramirez penalty in the seventh minute. The penalty was given when Daniel Mendes, whose goal in stoppage time on August 15th handed the Fury their only loss in their last 26 matches, was brought down by a combination of Ryan Richter and Colin Falvey inside the 18-yard box. The referee, who was at least 20 yards from the play, did not hesitate in awarding the penalty despite the ball having been played cleanly away from the ensuing contact. That being said, it’s the type of foul that causes controversy whether it’s called or not.
The physicality that was predicted throughout the week did not take long to exhibit itself on the field, as the Fury’s Tommy Heinemann and the Loons’ Tiago Calvano picked up right where they left off in their last encounter, pushing, pulling and jostling each other in their struggle to control the ball. By the ninth minute they had both picked up yellow cards from fouls against one another, forcing them to tone it down for the rest of the match. They did – but just.
For a while, it looked like it just wasn’t going to be Ottawa’s day. Chance after glorious chance was squandered by Tommy Heinemann and Andrew Wiedeman, either from mis-hit balls or spectacular saves from Minnesota keeper Sammy Ndjock. Still, when the halftime whistle blew there was a feeling that there was more than one goal in this match.
It didn’t take long after the break for the Fury to strike. Paulo Jr. sent a cross to Heinemann at the top of the 18-yard box and although Heinemann was well-guarded by Calvano, Heinemann did what he does best in creating space for himself out nothing. Nudging the ball into the 18-yard box with a flick of his chest, which sent him clear on Ndjock, the Fury’s leading scorer on the season put his earlier misses behind him by burying the opportunity near-post.
The way in which the match was playing out seemed to suggest that the Fury would soon find the go-ahead goal, but the Loons found a way to block, deflect and tackle their way into extra time, this despite not offering much on offence despite an abundance of riches in attacking players.
The first period of extra time was a cagey affair, with both teams tensing up, not wanting to make the mistake that would end their season. It would take a moment of magic in the second half of extra time to break the deadlock. Siniša Ubiparipović, who had two loan spells in Minnesota during his career, spotted Heinemann making a run to split Kevin Venegas and Calvano. From the dead centre of the field, Ubiparipović sent a perfectly-timed pass to find Heinemann. With Calvano draped all over him, the St. Louis native let the ball bounce once then blasted a left-footed volley to Ndjock’s left to give the Fury the lead with only 12 minutes to see out.
What followed were easily the tensest 12 minutes in Fury history. With nothing left to lose, Minnesota pushed forward with abandon, with Ndjock playing as a sweeper closer to the midfield line than to his goal. Sadly for the Loons, the man Fury supporters call “The Wall” was ready and waiting for them. In a moment of levity during this week’s training, Fury head coach Marc Dos Santos called me over to some of his players by saying: “Hey! Tell these guys how last season some fans were upset with me for going to get Romuald Peiser.” It’s true, and Dos Santos gets a playful glint in his eyes when recounting periods where he was wrongly questioned. This was one of those occasions, and he relished every moment. “I’m telling you. This is the problem here sometimes, is that people are too comfortable with what they have. Sometimes, if you have a seven in a position, you have to go get the nine when you have the opportunity!” Signing Peiser will go down as the greatest signing of Dos Santos’ tenure in Ottawa, and there have been many, but it’s safe to say that the Fury would not be going to New York next week were it not for the Frenchman’s heroics in that 12 minute stretch. He seemed to anticipate every shot, moving cat-like across the face of his goal to deny Minnesota time and again. Peiser made six saves over the course of the match, and it felt as if all of them came in the 12 minutes between Heinemann’s go-ahead goal and the final whistle from referee Mathieu Bourdeau. (note: team statistician Kevin Rollins confirms that all but one Peiser’s six saves were in extra time). “I’ve been telling you all along,” Dos Santos said after the match. “Romuald is an MLS keeper playing in NASL.”
The whistle was barely pulled from Bourdeau’s lips before a pitch invasion saw fans mingle and celebrate freely with players and coaches. Well, most of the coaches. Dos Santos ran off the pitch as quickly as he could get away to go call his wife, putting paid to his oft-repeated notion of the importance of family and character.
Once things calmed down a bit, Tom Heinemann met reporters where he reflected on the togetherness of this Fury squad: “This group does everything together, on the field and off. The dynamic inside that dressing room is special, man. It’s special and it’s an honour to be a part of it.”
Dos Santos echoed those sentiments. “I never coached a team that were such friends outside (of the team). These guys they go out together, they do everything together. Sometimes I ask them ‘Aren’t you guys tired of being together every day?’. No, they’re friends and it shows on the field. They pay the price for one another; they don’t want to let each other down.”
It’s a match that will have taken a physical toll on this group. When asked how he felt when Heinemann scored the extra time goal, Fury captain Richie Ryan’s response drew laughter from the assembled media: “Tired. I wanted to go over and celebrate with Tommy but I couldn’t get past the centre circle to be honest with you!” Ryan was cramping up on the field as the last minutes ticked by, and centre back Rafael Alves could barely move six yards after picking up a knock late in the second half of extra time. Even Heinemann, after scoring his second goal, grabbed his groin muscles and took a minute to recover.
Fortunately, these appear to be the kinds of knocks that players can recover from, given a week’s rest, which is the interval between the semifinal and final.
The Fury will travel to Hempstead, New York, on Friday in order to prepare for Sunday’s Soccer Bowl. One gets the sense that you would have to physically restrain some of these wounded warriors to prevent them from getting on the pitch. A week is a long time, as Fury and Cosmos supporters are about to find out.