By Brendan Shykora
Dom Oliveri and Jasmine Phillips both agree: it would be nice to have a pro women’s sports presence in Ottawa again.
The former head coach of the now defunct semi-pro Ottawa Fury Women’s soccer team, and his former goalkeeper, currently find themselves reunited on the Carleton Ravens coaching staff.
“I went from playing for him to coaching with him,” she told the Sports Pages in April 2021, adding they’ve been battling COVID-19 more often than actual soccer teams these days.
Phillips began coaching at Carleton two years ago — well, two or three years.
“The whole pandemic has thrown off time,” she laughed. At any rate, she’s enjoying working with Oliveri again, the man who coached the Fury to the USL W-League championship title in 2012, the year Phillips was a Central Conference all-star and finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year.
Phillips wasn’t with the team at the time, but the 2014 offseason was a parade of bad news for Oliveri’s club.
Glory days cut short
The Ottawa Fury Women dissolved on the heels of an undefeated season. They finished 11-0-1 to thoroughly dominate their W-League division and allowed a mere three goals against the entire season. They’d limped into that offseason having been beaten in heartbreaking fashion in the semi-finals. A free-kick scenario went the way of the Washington Spirit Reserves, and months later the fate of the Fury came down to a ‘business decision’— as Phillips herself discussed on the airwaves of CBC Radio’s All in a Day not long after the event.
The team folded roughly half a year before the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Of course, there’s always the next big event on the calendar to point toward in protest of a foreclosure, but this was a big one: The World Cup was hosted in Ottawa that year — the first Canadian city to have the honour.
“It was a long time ago now, but I believe that originally we’d gotten the go-ahead from the OSEG (Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group) board to run the team,” Oliveri told the Sports Pages. “And then I think at a subsequent board meeting the decision was made to not run the team.”
Kadeisha Buchanan was on the final Ottawa Fury roster. She went on to make the 2015 World Cup roster. The same goes for fellow Canadians Shelina Zadorsky, Ashley Lawrence, Bryanna McCarthy and Christabel Oduro.
Those and plenty more of today’s professional soccer players — including Ottawa’s Vanessa Gilles — are filling spots on Canada’s national team roster while playing overseas.
The Canadian women have earned bronze medals in each of the two most recent Olympic Games: London 2012, placing behind the U.S. and Japan; and Rio 2016, behind Germany and Sweden. While never reaching the top, they’ve reached the podium more often than any team in the world since 2012.
One question looms large upon this consideration: Canada (and Ottawa) produces some of the best female soccer players in the world. Why can’t they play at home?
Before the Fury women shut down near the end of 2014, Ottawa had lost its semi-professional women’s hockey team in 2010 when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League cut the club. The CWHL folded in 2019, making the dearth of professional leagues for women Canada-wide; there are no women’s professional sporting leagues in the country.
As Oliveri explains, a dearth of local professional leagues can stymie a country’s efforts to bring together championship winning teams at the international level.
“The thing that the W-League did was it gave an opportunity to players who maybe weren’t as established as professional players,” he said. “An opportunity to play at a really high level and show what they could do, and maybe potentially earn pro contracts based on that.”
Oliveri was the one to call Phillips and break the news that the club had shut down.
“I was pretty surprised because there was so much support in the community for it and they were doing so many great things, and having a lot of success,” she said.
Phillips hasn’t heard of any prospects of a pro women’s team around Ottawa for some time, and she’s not holding her breath in the short-term; it takes time to build something like the Fury.
“I think you have to start small,” she said. “What the women’s Fury had going was really great because we had high-level players from all over the world, so it was as close to a pro environment as you could be.”
Solutions aren’t easy to come by in terms of resurrecting the local pro environment in all its complexity, but Phillips is sure of one thing: there’s a demand for it out there, waiting for its return.
“It’s definitely marketable, there’s definitely people who are interested,” she said. To illustrate the point, she offered an anecdote of a time when she was randomly approached by a girl at a local restaurant.
“This girl said ‘oh, you’re Jasmine Phillips, right? … I used to watch you all the time when I was a kid … I got your autograph!’”
On top of what she sees as a coach, that encounter affirmed to her that girls are ready to dive into the pro game if the opportunity is there for the taking.
“It’s very hard to find on television, but still they have a dream.”
Stephen O’Kane had a good vantage point of the women’s Fury team in its last days of glory, having been head coach of the men’s side at the time.
He now has a good vantage point of the state of professional women’s soccer as a whole, having launched the Ottawa-based Soccer Snobs podcast.
Relatively new in just their second season on air, O’Kane and his podcast co-hosts have spoken with local professional talents like Gilles, a Team Canada full-back who has been impressing with Bordeaux in the French League.
On March 9, they spoke with Toronto Star sports reporter Laura Armstrong, to discuss whether there is a plan for Canadian MLS teams to start women’s teams, following a path recently trod by the big European teams — a step up from the extant National Women’s Soccer League in the U.S.
“I think (we’ve) seen the infrastructure that’s been put in place in countries like England and Spain and the Netherland, and the game is really growing in Europe and even in Mexico,” Armstrong told the hosts. “And we don’t have a league, and that’s imperative.”
O’Kane has heard this echoed by many of his guests who are in or adjacent to high-level women’s Canadian soccer.
He agrees that building pro women’s teams within the established infrastructure of the MLS is the best way forward. More locally, O’Kane thinks the best thing that could happen in the short term would be for Athletico Ottawa to fund an elite soccer program for girls.
“The team is bankrolled by Athletico Madrid in Spain, which is a massive club with loads of money,” he said.
“I would be very hopeful … they say they’re here to stay and to grow in the community, I would really love to see if they started a women’s team here.”