By Ethan Diamandas
Sixteen-year-old midfielder Antoine Coupland has always been ready to show people what he can do on the pitch, he’s just been waiting for the right opportunity.
When the Chelsea, Que. native signed with Atlético Ottawa in March, he got his best chance yet.
Just months earlier, on Jan. 29, the Canadian Premier League (CPL) announced it would expand into Canada’s capital with a new team, Atlético Ottawa. This new team would be affiliated with the decorated Spanish football club Atlético Madrid and boast the same patented red and white stripes on its uniforms.
Coupland, one of 16 Canadians who would make up the Ottawa affiliate’s roster, was already a household name in the Ottawa soccer community.
In 2019, the Ottawa Fury FC made him their youngest signee in club history and one of the youngest pro soccer players in Canada, at just 15-years-old. Over a year removed from his Fury debut, the 5-foot-7 midfielder embarked on his second pro venture with a fresh slate of teammates.
In a perfect, non-pandemic world, Coupland would have made his Atlético debut in front of screaming fans at TD Place, but COVID-19 threw a wrench into the Ottawa club’s inaugural season. The CPL was forced to condense its schedule, switching to a seven-match tournament in Charlottetown, P.E.I, dubbed “The Island Games.” It took place from mid-August until early September. Atlético missed out on a chance at the playoff round with a final-game loss, closing its inaugural season with 2 wins, 3 losses and 2 ties.
Even though the season didn’t pan out to a dream result, Coupland said he enjoyed his experience with Atlético and was happy he got the chance to develop as a player.
“I felt like I’ve come a very long way,” said the former Ottawa St. Anthony Futuro player. “In terms of achieving goals, I did get more minutes than last year (and) I did get more playing opportunities than last year.”
Coupland got into three matches and played 98 total minutes in the Island Games, a big step up from his 17 minutes played with the Fury in 2019.
On a club where his oldest teammate, goalkeeper Ignacio “Nacho” Zabal, 33, is more than twice his age, Coupland said he didn’t feel out of place this season.
In fact, he said being surrounded by talented veteran players, such as fellow attacking midfielder Francisco Acuña, provided a unique learning opportunity.
“Just watching him do his magic, playing the way he plays, is pretty inspiring,” Coupland said of his Mexican teammate.
Since turning pro, Coupland said he’s had to make some major adjustments to his lifestyle.
“I think a lot of things changed,” said Coupland. “My habits changed. From sleeping to eating to being more focused, to my level of physicality.”
But there is another critical lesson he’s learned since penning his first pro contract.
“Being a professional athlete also means being responsible in society and having a proper image,” Coupland said. “So that’s really what I learned, from that day on, signing a professional contract.”
At Collège Saint-Alexandre in Gatineau, Que., where Coupland is a Grade 11 student, he said people will recognize him in the halls. Because people know him as a pro soccer player, Coupland says he tries to use his status to be a positive influence.
When he’s not in class or juggling schoolwork with soccer training, Coupland says he’ll lend support to his school’s soccer teams and even try to make practices and do a little coaching when he can. For him it’s a way to repay those who have helped him reach his stature.
“The soccer community, especially in Ottawa, helped me so much,” Coupland said.
“One of the other important things is giving back to the community, that’s something some soccer players don’t value enough.”
Coupland says it’s an honour to represent not only the city of Ottawa, but his club’s Spanish affiliation as well.
“I think it’s also about representing the stripes and representing Atlético Madrid,” Coupland said, signaling to the Atlético logo on his team jacket during an interview with the Sportspage over Zoom.
“They have unique values and a unique way of thinking,” Coupland said. “Every time I step on the field, I’m very proud to say that I’m playing for Atlético Ottawa, a team affiliated with Atlético Madrid. That’s a really strong feeling for me.”
In the short-term, Coupland says he hopes to re-sign with Atlético and lead them to a CPL championship next season, Further into the future, he’s hopeful he could potentially get an opportunity in the academy system of his club’s Spanish affiliate.
“I’m 16, there’s youth teams until U19 (at Atlético Madrid). Having that opportunity to potentially go play over in Madrid with the academy is something that is achievable and if I work towards it, it’s definitely somewhere that I could see myself playing in the future,” Coupland said.
After that, he says his goal is to make Canada’s under-20 World Cup team, at some point play for the men’s national team and follow in the footsteps of some of Canada’s young soccer superstars.
“In the long term, (my goal) is to be playing professional at some of the highest levels, like we’ve seen Alphonso Davies and (Ottawa’s) Jonathan David,” Coupland said.
“That’s something that I think if I work towards, I can achieve.”