The cat's out of the bag: Chris Mannella is returning to Ottawa. The 26-year-old midfielder was announced as Atlético Ottawa's latest signing on Tuesday, bringing the club's roster up to 11 players officially revealed so far. The team is currently in Spain, getting its pre-season underway at the facilities of parent club Atlético de Madrid. Mannella was long-rumoured to make his way to Atleti eventually, with York United FC opting not to re-sign the midfielder this past fall. Now that it's finally been confirmed, Ottawa's squad already looks stronger with such an important piece in place. As far as CPL free agent signings go, this one could be a perfect fit. Here are four reasons why.
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1. Familiarity with OttawaMannella has played well over half of his career professional games with the Ottawa Fury, having spent 2018 and 2019 there before the club folded. He played 67 games for them in total, including all but four games of the Fury's final season. Although a Toronto native, Mannella was right at home with Ottawa the first time, and it's clearly a place where he felt comfortable as a player before joining York. Perhaps a move to Atlético will allow him to thrive on the pitch. His previous run in the CPL, with York at The Island Games, was frustrating, since he missed the first five of his club's seven matches due to injury. So, he never really settled into the club. A fresh start in Ottawa might be the perfect way for Mannella to get back on his game, now that he'll be healthy and have a longer season to prove what he can do. Plus, nobody else on Atlético Ottawa's current roster has had such a strong run of playing professional soccer in the capital. Antoine Coupland is the only other player who ever suited up for the Fury, but as a 15-year-old at the time he didn't have an extended run of games. Mannella is the only player so far on this squad to really know what it's like to be a professional soccer player in the city. He'll know TD Place Stadium better than any of his teammates, and the local fans will certainly remember him from his time with the Fury.
2. Strength in midfieldThe middle of the pitch is coming together as a real area of strength for Atlético, even with Francisco Acuña moving on from the club. With Viti Martínez, Ben McKendry, Tevin Shaw, and Osah Bernardinho already locked in, Mannella will add another major piece to the group. Mannella is a good, well-rounded midfielder, who can be plugged into a variety of roles for Ottawa. Injuries in 2020 aside, he's usually a reliable workhorse who can log heavy minutes on a weekly basis. He posted an 85.7 per cent pass success rate with the Fury in 2019, and he was equally capable of advancing the ball forward and cycling it back to maintain possession. Mannella is strong on the defensive side of the ball too, with an ability to make tackles and pick off passes in midfield. When Mannella returned to the York lineup at The Island Games, coach Jimmy Brennan described him as a player with energy, who brings "that little bit of bite" to the midfield. That's exactly what Atlético Ottawa could use. Overall, depth will be hugely important for Ottawa this year, with coach Mista not able to get much out of his bench in the club's first seven games. Mannella is likely a starter, but adding a piece to midfield means more options on the bench for late-game pushes and squad rotation.
3. Strong at the CPL levelIt's a little surprising, but Mannella's four career games against CPL opposition (two with York last season, and two with the Fury against HFX Wanderers FC in the 2019 Canadian Championship) puts his experience at this level fairly close to some of his Atlético teammates -- and ahead of Shaw and Bernardinho, who didn't play last year. Mannella played all 180 minutes of the two-legged tie against the Wanderers back in 2019, and he was instrumental to the Fury's narrow victory. He had an assist in the first leg, and he was responsible throughout the series for sticking close by Akeem Garcia and other HFX attackers. While with the Fury, Mannella was a teammate or opponent of about a dozen players he'll have to face in the CPL, from Thomas Meilleur-Giguère and Jamar Dixon at Pacific FC to Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé of HFX Wanderers. He's also been at Canadian national team camps with the likes of Kyle Porter, Kyle Bekker, and Nik Ledgerwood. Having grown up in the Canadian soccer community with the Toronto FC academy, Mannella is all too familiar with a large chunk of the CPL's domestic players. The same can't be said for a lot of the Ottawa squad, many of whom are new to the professional game in this country, so Mannella's experience will be very useful to the squad.
4. Leadership on a young teamWith the first season being so short, Atlético Ottawa will still be dealing with the relative inexperience of an expansion side. With a lot of their current roster either very young (Coupland and Keesean Ferdinand) or still new to the game in Canada (Bernardinho and Shaw), leadership and experience will be vital. Ottawa was led in its first season by inaugural captain Ben Fisk, who has since moved on from the club. Mannella, an outgoing locker-room presence with a lot of local playing experience, might be asked to take up some of the mantle, probably alongside Ben McKendry. With Atlético Ottawa still new in town (they haven't yet played a game in their home city), players such as Mannella who can help out the club both on and off the pitch could go a long way toward embedding the team in its community.