By Dan Plouffe
The Ottawa South United under-17 boys are on the cusp of achieving a feat so rare for a soccer team from the nation’s capital that their club’s founding president isn’t sure if it’s even happened before.
With one game left on their Ontario Youth Soccer League schedule – albeit the deciding one – the 10-5 OSU Force have a chance to win the east division title with a road victory over Glen Shields on Saturday, Sept. 10 north of Toronto.
“There might have been one team maybe 10 or 12 years ago, I just really don’t remember,” OSU president Bill Michalopulos says of the last time someone from Ottawa won an OYSL division title. “It’s a rare thing. Most teams from Ottawa will go play one year and then they’re relegated. The overwhelming majority of the teams, unfortunately that’s what happens to them.”
But to hear Force coach Russell Shaw tell it, this is no ordinary soccer team. They do, however, embody the true meaning of team, he believes.
“There are 17 players who have all started this year,” Shaw notes, highlighting the squad’s depth as a crucial tool in the second leg of back-to-back road matches against fresh Toronto clubs. “This lineup is very deep. I bring two guys off the bench who are lightning fast and then bring in two other guys who are lightning fast, and we just wear teams into the ground.”
Besides their soccer attributes of speed, tremendous athleticism, defending well as a unit and boasting several game-changers, Shaw identifies the players’ commitment and dedication to one another as the main key to his squad’s success.
“They’re the easiest team on the road,” says Shaw, whose group performed well at major U.S. showcase tournaments in Dallas and North Carolina, and won its group at the Disney event. “You never have to worry about them being 17-year-old boys because they’re so good with each other and all want the same thing.”
Isaac Johnson and Kevin Pitre have been standout contributors in the midfield, while provincial team defender Mekonen Lovemore-White has been a handful for opponents plying as a striker and sits second on the OYSL scoring chart.
Topping the Force’s weapons arsenal is league-leading scorer Marco Natoli, who has 17 goals in 15 games.
“He’s unpredictable. His deception, his decision-making, his first touch – he’s just on another level,” Shaw raves. “When you watch him play, he’s the first one the scouts always notice.”
Evidence of that fact is that Natoli has been invited to train with several European club academies, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and the Canadian U17 national team. But he’s declined all those offers, including Team Canada’s.
“The time they were doing their camp conflicted with this team,” Shaw explains. “He wasn’t pushed that way by us by any means – we’d push him the other way – but it was his choice. He’s a very team-first kid.”
Natoli uses the word “family” to describe his soccer teammates, and that’s a big part of why he gave up individual opportunities to stay with his hometown group.
“Our goal was to win OYSL. We said it from the beginning of the year,” the Grade 11 St. Pius X Catholic High School student notes, brushing off his accomplishments as the league’s top goal scorer. “I guess it’s kind of big, but I’d rather win the league than the scoring thing. I don’t even look at that.”
To ensure they win the division crown and secure a place in the OYSL final against the west division champion on Oct. 1, the Force must beat Glen Shields in Saturday’s season finale.
OSU was victorious 5-1 in the clubs’ only other meeting this season, but the Force are also coming off their worst defeat of the campaign, a 5-1 loss against 6-8-1 Woodbridge.
But the coach isn’t overly concerned since his group always seems to rise to the challenge in the most important games, and because the players who hail from Carp to Cumberland across the city are set on accomplishing something special for Ottawa soccer.
“It’s really been a dream season,” Shaw smiles. “Now we’re working hard to finish it.”
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