By Dan Plouffe
Piles of local soccer players were in the stands to watch Vanessa Gilles and Team Canada play the first leg of their Olympic gold medal celebration tour on Oct. 23 at TD Place, and then a bunch of them took to the pitch themselves the following day and wrote their own chapter of local soccer history.
Far from the old days when Toronto rivals would routinely pummel Ottawa clubs, three local teams clinched Ontario titles on the same day in town.
OSU Force fit for first
The Ottawa South United Force under-14 girls had the first, and easiest, job to get the championship day started. Their mission was not to lose by 48 goals or more on their home field in Manotick, but they instead stuck to the form that got them to the top of the Ontario Player Development League standings and blasted Vaughan 6-1.
Coach David Fox, who’d only landed in Ottawa a few weeks before COVID hit, says his team’s commitment to personal fitness and individual training through lockdown proved potent. His players would torment their opponents with a relentless attacking pace, and kept coming past the 70th minute when their rivals were worn out.
“All the players just came back in such amazing shape, and I think that’s what sets them apart,” indicates Fox, whose team won every game except one against Ottawa TFC.
“I don’t think you’ll find a group of kids who have done more to make the most of a difficult situation, and who bought in while also having fun and enjoying themselves,” adds the UK-raised coach. “I genuinely believe that those players that did more will be the ones that succeed in the long term.”
Force forward Annabelle Chukwu nearly tripled anyone else’s goal total in dominating the league scoring race with 35 tallies in 15 games. OSU’s +91 goal differential was matched by only one team across all OPDL divisions, and that team was the Ottawa TFC U17 girls.
Ottawa TFC caps perfect season with perfect weekend
Stop #2 of the historic day was in Cumberland, where Ottawa TFC needed to finish their undefeated season with a win (level Markham had also posted nothing but wins, other than the scoreless draw when the two leaders met).
The decisive game was played mostly in their opponents’ territory, but the score remained 0-0 deep into second half until Ottawa TFC leading scorer Flavie Dube finally pounded one in.
“I was so relieved, like I could feel the tension go out of my chest,” Dube says of the biggest of her 27 goals (which was a little behind league-leader Sabrina Mangiaracina of OSU at 41).
“There was definitely a lot of pressure in this match, but I knew we could do it,” adds Dube, who couldn’t have imagined a better weekend with her teammates. “It’s been awesome to see how close we got through road trips and being together every day, and going to the Team Canada game together and then going out for dinner after.”
The eventual 2-0 win over Vaughan gave goalkeeper Paige Robert her seventh consecutive clean sheet to finish the season.
“We won a lot of games by a large margin, but very often we talked about how it was on the back of the defence,” notes Ottawa TFC coach Pavel Cancura, who celebrated the club’s first OPDL title two years after winning Eastern Ontario’s first U17 national title with some of the same players.
His squad had to be perfect from the start, which was no small feat coming out of COVID.
“We knew that one slip and the title would have been gone,” underlines Cancura, who preached the need for professionalism in their approach to every game. “But you know, looking back on it – during those lockdowns, for the better part of a year, we were training virtually, like indoors in basements, and we were doing it most days. That’s just crazy.
“When you think about it now, I guess it ended up giving us this unity, this strength, and this confidence in the whole group – like man, nobody outworked us, it’s just impossible. I think that, to me, marks this group more than anything else.”
Warriors U17 boys win OPDL east, now seek Charity Shield
Dedication was the key ingredient in the West Ottawa Warriors’ standout U17 boys’ OPDL campaign as well, which they coolly capped with a 6-0 win over Brampton to finish the trio of local titles in Kanata.
Warriors coach Marco Romozzi highlights another significant sign of progress in local soccer – in the past, a sizeable chunk of U17 rosters would include players who didn’t have aspirations of continuing to play competitive soccer beyond the youth ranks. But now all of his players are shooting for the next level, and the squad’s resulting depth was a critical weapon in their championship quest.
“The commitment of the group has just been huge. They show up every day,” Romozzi signals. “They just all want it, so that makes it really enjoyable as a coach.”
West Ottawa had season-opening 3-2 loss to OSU, then posted nothing but wins, including seven in a row by one goal before the final game blowout.
“We played a lot of really close games,” Romozzi recounts, including a match against Ottawa TFC where they were down three times but won it 4-3 at the end. “A lot of perseverance in this group, a lot of character, and just finding ways to win.”
West division-champion Oakville, with a better goal differential, will be recognized as the U17 boys’ overall league champions, though West Ottawa is looking forward to facing Oakville for the first time this year at the season-end Charity Shield finals on the Nov. 6-7 weekend in Vaughan.
Winners of their playoff semi-finals, OSU’s U15 girls will join the other three local league champions for the post-season Charity Shield finale.
Continued Ottawa soccer growth becoming clear
It was a solid season overall for local OPDL squads, with 12 of 16 local entries finishing above .500. In another sign of Ottawa soccer progress, each champion team commented that local rivals provided some of their toughest competition en route to the titles.
“I think the formula is just working now,” Cancura indicates, noting that the strongest local players are practicing with each other daily and the OPDL clubs are investing in top coaching. “There’s always room for growth and there are things we can criticize, but we’ve been working really hard at it.”
After overcoming COVID and having a more normal season, and a local hero coming home to show off the biggest prize in sport, the championships felt even greater than already grand victories.
“There’s such a huge sense of accomplishment,” Cancura underlines. “This is a really big one, for the whole community.”
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