Atlético Ottawa faces tight deadlines to build roster for spring debut

Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, owners of the Redblacks and the 67s, is petitioned the city for a change to its public-private partnership. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg

A former sprinter, Fernando Lopez is no stranger to moving fast.

But the international expansion manager for Atlético Madrid knows he has to go a long way in a very short time in building expansion Atlético Ottawa ahead of the mid-April start of the Canadian Premier League.

Unveiled Feb. 11, Atlético Ottawa is slated to open training camp in Madrid in the first or second week of March. As of now, the team has a coach and stadium but has yet to announce a player signing.

READ MORE: Canadian Premier League announces 2020 home dates; Ottawa's home opener set for May 16

Atlético Ottawa opens play April 18 against defending champion Forge FC at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field as the CPL kicks off its second season. Ottawa’s home opener at TD Place Stadium is May 16, against HFX Wanderers FC.

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Atlético already runs or owns teams in China, France, India, Israel and Mexico, which the 33-year-old Lopez has spent the last year overseeing. All but the Mexican team — Atlético San Luis — were already in existence when Atlético Madrid took over.

“It is true that we have done this before but we are a little bit stressed because (CPL) competition will start very soon,” said Lopez, a former Spanish 200-metre indoor sprint champion.

“And we have a little bit of a lack of knowledge about the competition, other teams having been here for one season. They already have all their players, they know the country, they know the distances, they have the expertise.

“Yes football is the same everywhere but we need to be flexible, to know the culture, to adapt to the country. This is going to take some time for us.”

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Atlético Ottawa has local expertise in the form of Jeff Hunt, a partner with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group which owns the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks and OHL’s Ottawa 67’s and manages TD Place.

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“He has been very helpful from the beginning,” Lopez said. “I think he’s going to be key to this project for Atlético.”

The CPL is also doing its bit to assist.

“We have been fully supported from the very first day by the CPL,” Lopez said.

“Since we launched the club and the agreement, everyone was aware that we’re going to suffer and that we haven’t enough time to build the team, to create the logo, to create the business operational team, find the offices, apartments for the players, cars everything.”

READ MORE: Atletico de Madrid buys expansion soccer team for Ottawa in Canadian Premier League

The CPL has a scouting department that looks for both domestic and international talent. Atlético also has its own player database.

“It is true we have a strong scouting department in Madrid that has been reviewing all the players provided by the league,” Lopez said.

With a well-stocked academy, Atlético Madrid has plenty of talent at its disposal. But CPL roster rules require a significant Canadian presence.

Rosters range from 20 to 23 with at least half being Canadian and a limit of seven international players. At least three of the domestic players must be under 21 and they have to play a minimum of 1,000 minutes per season.

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The rest of the roster can be filled by domestic players, including U-Sports draft picks.

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Lopez expects to make player announcements in the next two weeks in conjunction with coach Miguel Ángel Ferrer, a former forward known as Mista who had a brief stint as a designated player with Toronto FC.

Camp is being held at Atlético’s new training complex in Madrid so the CPL players can get a taste of the Atlético culture and play pre-season friendlies against high-quality Spanish teams.

The CPL players will also get to see Atlético Madrid play at its new 68,000-capacity Wanda Metropolitano stadium, which opened in September 2017 and hosted the 2019 Champions League final.

“Especially in this first season, I think it’s important that all the environment surrounding Atlético Ottawa is supported by Atlético Madrid,” Lopez said.

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Atlético’s different teams do not all play the same style, with each coach bringing his own direction, said Lopez.

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“But what is the same is the passion, the values, the hard work, winning spirit, humility,” he said.

“All those values are shared by all the teams that we’re involved in. And that is the key to our success.”

Lopez will be based in Ottawa, giving up his current role to become chief executive officer of Atlético.

“It’s impossible to do both things,” he said during a brief stop in Toronto before flying back to Madrid.

“Especially if I’m going to be here (in Canada). But I’m going to wear several hats in Atlético Ottawa … especially in the beginning.”

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