By Ethan Diamandas
The memory of silence in the dressing room still bothers Emad Houache.
Now a five-year veteran of the Carleton Ravens men’s soccer team, the 27-year-old midfielder remembers the final whistle and the emotional sting that followed a 1-0 extra-time loss to UQTR on Nov. 8, 2019.
“It sticks with you for a long, long time,” Houache said. “Longer than I care to admit, to be honest with you.”
That chilly afternoon defeat at CEPSUM Stadium in Montreal was the last time Carleton played in a national championship tournament. It’s a moment Houache holds onto.
“We’re not accustomed [to losing],” he said. “We have a winning culture, so losing is always a bitter feeling.”
Over the last several years, the Carleton Ravens men’s soccer program has developed into one of Ontario’s more desirable destinations for footy talent, largely because of its reputation for winning.
Under the watch of Kwesi Loney, who was promoted to head coach in 2016, the club has amassed a 57-6-8 regular-season record (.803 win percentage) and won a provincial championship in 2019. Loney credits some of his club’s dramatic success to a subtle philosophical tweak on the pitch.
“I just changed our style of play a little bit,” Loney said. “I’m more of a possession-oriented person when it comes to the ball. And I think that made us a little more attractive, more of a landing spot for some players to come to.
“I was very big on making the game very enjoyable and an exciting product for fans to want to enjoy.”
But breeding a budding soccer powerhouse like Carleton’s requires more than formation adjustments or changes in pace of play. It’s the Ravens’ homegrown roster that birthed this exciting new culture.
“What I love about our team is that we are all from Ottawa,” said forward Gabriel Bitar, the club’s second-leading goal scorer. “So, at some point, we’ve all played against each other [or] played with each other in our youth careers.”
Of the 33 players listed on Carleton’s roster, 23 are from the Ottawa area.
“It’s kind of cool; we have all these stories of each other growing up and stuff like that,” Bitar said. “I feel like it was meant to be for all of us to be on this team, too.”
Bitar, 23, said when Loney recruited him in 2017, the coach presented a vision of what the next few years at Carleton would look like — high-quality football with teammates he recognized and a solid education to go along with it.
“It was a very good option for a lot of us here in Ottawa,” Bitar said.
On the pitch, the team’s comradery makes things click.
“One of our things that we work on all the time is communication with each other,” said 21-year-old Kyle Potter, the team’s starting goalkeeper. “If you can trust the guy beside you and know that he has your back and you have his back … it just makes everything run so much smoother.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things in footy — just trusting your teammate to do the right thing.”
But there’s a flipside to this dynamic. Because the Ravens trust each other, they have no reservations about holding one another accountable, which only solidifies the club’s winning mentality.
“When things aren’t up to standards, right away, we identify it and don’t accept it,” Houache said. “We just don’t accept substandard performances from anyone, from the top guys, from the bench, from the people who aren’t dressing.”
This club accepts nothing but the best from its roster, which sets the bar very high for when Carleton hosts the U Sports national men’s soccer championship tournament from Nov. 18 to 21.
With the tournament being played in Ottawa, the host Ravens automatically secure a bid, meaning they won’t be fighting to qualify for nationals during the upcoming Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoffs. Instead, Carleton is playing for seeding.
The spectacle of hosting a national tournament also helps recognize Ottawa as one of Canada’s legitimate soccer hubs, Loney said.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to highlight the Ottawa soccer community,” the coach said. “And I think we’re able to put the players in Ottawa on stage.
“We’re not the big soccer demographic like Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal. But you can see, just based on our program alone, the number of talented players that we have coming out of our city.”
Houache said his teammates will lean on their strong chemistry with one another to embrace the pressure of the biggest tournament of the season – the same way they relied on it to overcome adversity all season.
“The first sight of conflict or a challenge or pressure, that’s when most people fall,” Houache said. “But with us, we tend to rise to the occasion.”
For now, the focus is on the OUA playoffs. Still, the idea of securing Carleton’s very first national championship, avenging the painful losses of years prior, and doing it all on home soil, would bring indescribable joy to the Ravens program.
“It would be such a surreal moment … like something you won’t forget for the rest of your life,” Bitar said. “So, God willing, we can win it this year and make the city proud.”
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