Ottawa Fury FC turned heads by winning the North American Soccer League fall season in 2015, losing just once in 26 matches en route to a 3-2 championship game loss to the New York Cosmos.
But the off-season brought change to Ottawa, plenty of it, in the form of new coach Paul Dalglish and a revamped roster. The new-look Fury and Cosmos renew acquaintances Sunday on the opening weekend of NASL play.
Gone are NASL coach of the year Marc Dos Santos and three members (Ryan Richter, Colin Falvey and Canadian Mason Trafford) of a back four that yielded a league-low 23 goals in 30 games while compiling a 15-4-11 record over the spring and fall seasons. Captain Richie Ryan, who sat in front of the back four, has also moved on.
MLS veterans Andrew Wiedeman (Toronto FC), Drew Beckie (Columbus), Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare (Montreal), Sinisa Ubiparipovic (Montreal, New York Red Bulls) and Tom Heinemann (Columbus, Vancouver) have also left.
Dalglish was appointed coach and GM on Nov. 20, five days after the championship loss. Dos Santos has since resurfaced as coach of the Swope Park Rangers, Sporting Kansas City's USL team.
"It was a baptism of fire really when I got here," said Dalglish, son of Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish.
Only six of the 18 Ottawa players that dressed for the NASL final are back.
"Much more than expected," Dalglish said of the changes. "But we're very comfortable with the turnover that we had."
On the plus side, NASL Golden Glove winner Romuald Peiser remains in goal. The 36-year-old from France compiled a 648-minute scoreless streak while finishing last season with a 0.76 goals-against average. He gave up just 22 goals in 29 games.
"One of the most undervalued positions on the field," said Dalglish. "Because we naturally place more importance on events that happen rather than events that are prevented from happening ... We're lucky to have him and it gives us a great foundation to build on"
Veteran midfielder Julian de Guzman takes over as captain, joined this season by fellow Canadian international Marcel de Jong.
"Top-level players for our level," said Dalglish.
The Fury succeeded last year on a stingy defence and dangerous counter-attack. Dalglish says his approach is slightly more attack-oriented, "looking to control the game with the ball rather than without the ball.
"It will be different but we want it to be equally if not more successful."
It worked in pre-season with Ottawa scoring freely. Training camp came with a cost, however, with defender Kyle Venter and forward Pablo Dyego lost to long-term knee injuries.
Canadian forward Carl Haworth has excelled in camp. "Absolutely brilliant," said Dalglish
Interesting roster additions include Brazilian playmaker Gerardo Bruna and Israeli forward Idan Vered.
Bruna, 24, was on Real Madrid's books at the age of 11 before joining Liverpool. In 2002, Bruna ranked No. 10 on World Soccer magazine's list of the "top 50 most exciting teen footballers," keeping company with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Giovani Dos Santos, Angel Di Maria, Marouane Fellaini, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Pato, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott.
He has yet to live up to that potential, joining Ottawa from English League Two side Accrington Stanley.
"It's taken us a while to get him up to 90 minutes of fitness but every day that goes by, he's looking fitter and sharper. I think he's going to be a real top player for us this season," said Dalglish
Vered is also still finding match fitness after arriving in camp late.
Dalglish, 39, was head coach and technical director of the Austin Aztex in Texas before joining Ottawa. The Scottish-born Dalglish came to North America to join the Houston Dynamo in 2006 and went into coaching in 2008.
He played for a variety of clubs in Britain including Newcastle, Norwich City, Wigan, Blackpool, Livingston and Hibernian.
The 11-team NASL, which also features FC Edmonton, is the second tier of soccer in North America. The USL has also applied to move up to second-tier status.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press