By Charlie Pinkerton
Though it was unbeknownst to the team of 15-year-old Ottawa girls at the time, but coming out on the losing end in one of their league’s title-matches last year would set them on a trajectory towards historic success.
A spree of Ontario Provincial Development League championships for the group that would become Ottawa South United’s (OSU) Under-17 girls team this year, began when many of the girls were playing in the U15 age group last year. Around the midway point of the 2018 season, the team qualified to compete in the OPDL Cup – the midseason tournament held for each of the top provincial soccer league divisions each year, which last season also doubled as the Ontario Summer Games gold medal game.
By simply qualifying for the finals of the OPDL Cup last year, OSU’s U15 girls were well on their way to an expectation-exceeding season.
The year before, the same group of girls had been a middle-of-the-pack team in the OPDL. Despite adding a few “difference-makers,” as OSU club head coach Paul Harris put it at the time, from the year before, the team found itself in a tricky situation in early 2018, as its original coach, Claire Ditchburn, was suspended for violating rules around soliciting players from other clubs.
Harris, who spends time with each of OSU’s club’s teams as its head coach, was thrust into a heightened role with the group in Ditchburn’s absence.
“Once they got rolling, they just kept on winning,” Harris told the Sportspage about his team in an interview last year.
Long-time OSU coach Abe Osman eventually stepped in to lead the team just six games (all wins) into last season.
Thinking back to when he took over as coach, Osman said what would turn into a historic run for the girls started with “self-belief.”
“It was journey that started a long, long time ago in training, in the domes, followed through when we went outside. We went over stuff over and over and over again,” Osman said.
Loss fuels perfect finish
They would eventually be met by North Toronto in the OPDL Cup finals last year. The result of that game – a 3-1 victory for North Toronto – inadvertently became a symbol of motivation for OSU’s girls.
“We believed that day we were the better team. … But for some reason or another, it just wasn’t our day. We put it on the calendar that we would be back in that game,” Osman recalled.
The loss was one of only two for OSU’s U15 girls last year, as they proceeded to win both the OPDL league championship and the OPDL Charity Shield (which is awarded to the winner of a game between each of the league’s top division teams). But despite Harris’ belief following the 2018 season that the group were the unquestioned top team in the province, they had left a clean-sweep of the league’s titles on the table.
With the absence of an early season controversy, like what embroiled their team’s coach the year before, much of the same group that graduated to become OSU’s U17 squad this year began the 2019 season by “rolling right along,” as Osman put it.
“We were just putting teams to the sword,” said Osman, who stayed the coach of the girls through their transition into the OPDL’s highest age group.
Around the midway mark of this season on Aug. 17, the girls corrected their loss in the OPDL Cup finals from the year before with a 2-0 win over Oakville.
Yet the team’s most important test didn’t come until about a month later. Osman said his team was hobbled by injuries when they visited the Greater Toronto Area for a pair of games over the Sept. 14-15 weekend. After losing a 1-0 game to North Toronto – who at the time was the only team within reach of potentially catching them for the OPDL league title – in their first game of the weekend, OSU fell behind to Whitby by three goals early the next day.
“I think that was the moment we realized, you know what – after not losing for so long (the loss the day before was their first of the 2019 season), North Toronto breathing on our heels with the league championship on the line, and we’re down three (to) nothing, 25 minutes into this game with tired legs, injuries – at half time we just said listen, we’re going to change formations a little bit, we’re going to go for it, we’re going to gamble; if we lose, we lose,” Osman remembers.
OSU’s U17 girls responded by scoring four straight goals to win 4-3 and keep a safe lead in their league’s standings.
“I think that was the game that was the epitome of what that team was and how they can overcome and overachieve and really fight to be the best team they can be,” Osman said.
OSU clinched the OPDL league championship the next weekend with a 2-0 win against North Toronto before completing the so-called “treble” of championships on Sep. 28 by beating the team that kept them from the feat the year before by the same score. An Ontario Soccer spokesperson confirmed to the Ottawa Sportspage that OSU’s U17 girls’ team is the first team to sweep all three of their OPDL division titles.
“When it really mattered, in all relevant games, they found a way to win,” Harris said about his club’s history-making group of girls. “(Last year’s OPDL Cup loss) was a huge learning tool for them. Ever since then they’ve found a way to get the best of the opposition in really big games.”
Harris said he plans to point to the U17 girls’ recovery story as a lesson for younger OSU teams in the years ahead.
Osman is also the coach of OSU’s League 1 women’s team. He says there’s a chance that most of the girls he’s coached over the last two years could be split between three of OSU’s teams next season.
“(These girls are) a special group. There won’t be a team like this for a while. (They’re) a very, very solid team,” Osman said.
U17 girls earn new Ottawa TFC club’s first provincial crown
Like the OSU U17 girls did, Ottawa TFC also put forward a championship calibre U17 girls team this year, with their squad winning an Ontario Cup in their first season since merging two of Ottawa’s existing clubs, Cumberland United and Capital United.
The new Ottawa soccer club won their first provincial championship 1-0 in a game against Vaughan Azzurri, where the only goal scored came when a Vaughan defender couldn’t clear a shot by Flavie Dubé, which had beat the keeper and was near the line. Paige Robert maintained the clean sheet for Ottawa.
Teams in the OPDL are not allowed to compete for the Ontario Cup. Ottawa TFC entered U13 and U14 teams in the OPDL this year but the club’s other teams weren’t accepted, according to what the club’s general manager Pavel Cancura told the Sportspage in the spring. Ottawa TFC’s U17 girls instead competed in the Ottawa Carleton Soccer League this season, where players moved between the most competitive divisions in the league that doesn’t have age restrictions. Ottawa TFC’s entry in the highest-level league (known as Women Premier) finished in 4th place in the division. It’s entry in the next-highest level (Women C1) placed 1st in the division.
Most of the girls on the Ontario Cup championship team played with Ottawa TFC’s women premier league team for most of the season. Some of the girls on Ottawa TFC’s U17 girls team this year were members of Cumberland’s U15 girls squad last year that won the Ontario Cup for their age group last year, prior to the merger of their club with Capital United. Speaking to the Sportspage just days before his club’s team would play at Canada Soccer’s national championships in Charlottetown, P.E.I., Cancura explained that Ottawa TFC’s U17 girls’ team was made up of players between the ages of 15 to 17.
“Regardless of age they’re all quite talented,” Cancura said. “They’re all in it for the same reason: They want to go far with the sport and the take it seriously. … Also, I have to say I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a group come together this much as a team.
“You hear that stuff in movies, but this group has been like that.”
Despite the players’ difference in age, Cancura said the strong character of his players enabled them to mesh well, though it was something they had to work at as a group. One thing the team did was make a conscious effort to schedule extra time during day trips to encourage the players to spend more time together, with the hope that they would get to know each other better.
“Everybody bought into the idea that this is the team we had, and our best bet is to rally around it to make it the best team we could possibility make it,” he said.
Ottawa TFC’s national championship pursuit started Oct. 9.
—with files from Dan Plouffe