By Dan Plouffe
Last year, an explosive group of superstars brought unprecedented recognition to Ottawa soccer while powering the Ottawa South United Force to an Ontario Provincial Development League championship.
This year, the Force’s under-15 girls’ title was all about the glue.
In 2021, OSU demolished the province’s best teams by an average of more than six goals per game en route to the league crown, outscoring their opposition by a combined 100-9.
Kayla Di Tiero, Bianca Hanisch and twins Annabelle and Isabelle Chukwu were all recruited to join the Canadian women’s national development centre in Toronto this fall following the spectacular showing (teammate Katherine Ozard will be joining them soon too), and several have also been called on to represent Ontario and Canada in national/international competition.
Between training camps, travel, moving and little injuries, the stars were only sometimes able to practice and play games with their club this season.
But look at this year’s standings and it’s still the Force who came out on top, fuelled in large part by rock-solid contributions from deeper in its lineup.
“The only way we can play and dominate the way we do is because everybody’s good,” signals Force coach David Fox, who’s tasted nothing but titles since joining OSU just before COVID hit from England.
“Yes, it’s not normal to have this many players moving on to higher levels, but the only way that can happen is the environment and training habits by every single player, which lifts the level,” he added.
“In my mind, the rest of them are really among the top provincial players as well, and maybe there’s the potential for more to move on again next year.”
OSU U14 girls mirror U15s’ dominance
The U15s also frequently called up players from the Force U14 girls, who followed in their senior counterparts’ footsteps in many ways this season.
First, there was the league championship – they won 18 games and lost just once while outscoring their opponents by a combined 87-13 total.
Then, there was the manner in which they clinched the title.
A day after Francesca Mureta had a four-goal game to wrap up the U15 girls’ title on their home field on Sept. 24, Mya Angus potted four to ensure the U14s’ triumph, again at George Nelms Sports Park in Manotick.
Angus wound up tied for the league scoring lead with 21 goals, while goalkeeper Ava Blinn recorded nine clean sheets.
Earlier in the summer, Angus joined three older Force players on the Canadian U15 women’s national team – Bianca Hanisch and Isabelle and Annabelle Chukwu.
(With 39 markers, Annabelle won the U15 scoring race by 14 goals despite missing several contests for international duty – her next appearance will come at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup from Oct. 11-30 in India.)
And Angus has also been recruited to join the elder Force at the national development centre next year, along with fellow U14 teammates Naomi Lofthouse, Mia Ugarte and Felicia Hanisch (Bianca’s younger sister).
Fox, who coaches both squads, says the U14 group is unquestionably cut from a similar cloth as the U15s.
“It’s super competitive kids who work very hard,” he indicates. “The club has created a great environment, but you’ve got to have the players with the right mentality to thrive in that.”
The U14 and U15 groups will often practice together, and they’ll sometimes train with OSU boys’ teams too. It’s all about pushing players to reach higher and higher, Fox explains, and having a wealth of quality teammates to train and compete with serves as a big weapon.
“I believe that you need different challenges,” he highlights. “Sometimes you get more time on the ball, and for the younger group, sometimes it challenges you in a different way.”
The U15 girls didn’t dominate to the same level this year – they had the same record of 6 wins, 2 losses and a tie as Hamilton United, but earned the title by tiebreaker.
Fox expects that two losses in the U15 girls’ final three games should help sharpen their focus, along with the chance to sweep three provincial crowns for the first time. After missing the chance to play in the OPDL Cup knockout tournament last summer due to COVID concerns, the Force won this year’s Cup at the Ontario Summer Games, they’ve got the league title in the bag, and now they’ll go after the Charity Shield (with the semi-final set for Oct. 15).
“Sometimes when you win every single week, it’s hard to maintain that level of motivation,” Fox notes. “They’re a good group and they work hard, but I think that’s part of it.”
Having star players in and out of the lineup does have an impact on team performance too, Fox acknowledges, though he’ll never complain about players getting the chance to play at higher levels.
“Moving these players on year after year is what success is all about ultimately,” Fox states, underlining that the team’s supporting cast plays a crucial role in making it possible.
“They have contributed massively to the success of the ones that are moving on and probably don’t get the credit that they deserve,” he adds. “They’re the ones that drive sessions, and if you’ve got highly motivated groups, you can get the outcomes that we’re getting at the moment.”
OSU & Ottawa TFC U17 girls fall just short of title
Ottawa came close to a clean sweep of the OPDL girls’ divisions this season, but the Ottawa TFC and OSU U17 girls both lost games that could have given them championships back-to-back on Oct. 2.
There was gigantic logjam at the top of the table heading into last weekend, with the top five teams all having a shot at first place. That was due in part to a new league format for the U15 and U17 divisions. After playing only regional opponents for the first half of the season, the top half of teams from each of the east and west divisions are then placed into a premier division for the second half (with the rest going into a lower tier).
The result was an exceptionally even and competitive league, attest the coaches of the top two local sides.
Ottawa TFC’s title hopes were dashed when they lost 3-1 to London Whitecaps at Millennium Park in Cumberland. Two goals was their biggest margin of defeat (and victory) this season in premier play.
“There’s just a lot of parity. It’s a tough, tough league. There’s no easy games,” signals Ottawa TFC coach Pavel Cancura. “It comes down to a couple bounces here and there, a couple inches left and right.”
Ottawa TFC won the OPDL U17 girls’ division last season with a +91 goal differential, but they weren’t the favourites to win this year. Most players on the 2021 championship team are now in university and their club didn’t have a U15 girls’ OPDL entry last year.
“I’m especially proud of this group because of where we started to where we are now,” underlines Cancura, whose club will also advance a pair of players to the national development centre – Maya Galko and Teegan Melenhorst.
“We just weren’t, pound for pound, a team that was gonna walk through anybody,” he adds. “We had a lot of work to do, and now the fact that we can play with anybody is pretty good, we’ve been quite good.
“If you told me at the beginning of the year that we’d be here, I would have said, ‘Man, that’d be pretty cool.'”
The Ottawa TFC girls shared smiles at the end of their match despite the difficult defeat. The lunchbox filled with treats (awarded to the team’s hardest working player) was perhaps part of the reason, or knowing that the future looks bright with only three players set to age out of the U17 division after this season.
“Next year will be a strong year for us. You’re getting all these experienced players and we’ve got a very strong U15 bunch coming up too,” highlights Cancura, whose squad can still get into the end-of-season playoffs for the top four with a win in their final contest at Pickering this coming weekend (if not, OSU will advance).
“I just keep telling them, ‘I think you can probably beat anybody,'” he details.
After Ottawa TFC had lost to London, it opened the door for OSU to win the championship (Ottawa TFC owns the tiebreaker advantage if the teams finish level). But the Force also fell by a pair a couple hours later in Manotick. The 2-0 loss to champion Markham was the team’s second heartbreaker on home turf in as many weekends.
“It’s been a battle. The league’s very, very competitive, with good, hard-working teams. Not much separates them,” notes OSU coach Abe Osman. “This (OSU) group made the Charity Shield finals last year, so hopefully we can get back there.”
Osman says his team’s success is founded on hard work, and that the players are “a very, very tight group” who “always enjoy the game and the sport, which is refreshing to see.”
The U17 Force girls have seen several players move on to the national development centre too (the club will have at least 13 in total come next year) – most notably Rosa Maalouf, who scored the most goals in the CONCACAF continental U17 World Cup qualification tournament, though she’ll now miss the big show due to injury.
In another sign of local soccer’s rise, Osman expects that his entire team of players will likely move to play university/college soccer, which is rapidly becoming a tradition.
“That should be the objective for the players, and on the top teams right now, I think it is an expectation,” Osman highlights. “It’s been exceptional the last few years with players getting scholarships to good universities in the States and Canada. Really, really good.”
OSU product Larisey debuts for Team Canada
It was six years ago that Osman and OSU were sending their biggest scoring machine off to the University of Memphis, and now Clarissa Larisey has become the first Force product to play for the Canadian senior women’s national team. The 23-year-old striker appeared for Canada during an early-September friendly in Australia.
“It’s so nice to see. We’ve been banging on the drum for so long to get her on the national squad,” smiles Osman, whose former player won four consecutive provincial league scoring titles from 2013-2016. “It was quite apparent early that she was going to be a handful whatever she did in the future.
“Whatever league she’s in, she’s always been a top scorer. Clarissa is a very, very special player.”
Similar to Ottawa TFC alum and Tokyo Olympic champion Vanessa Gilles (who missed the friendlies due to injury), Larisey never before played for Canada at the youth level before carving her way onto the senior side.
“She’s taken the longer path, having to go to Memphis (for university) and then Iceland and then Scotland (to play professionally) and then finally getting a break (with Team Canada),” reflects Osman, noting that Larisey’s journey serves as a big inspiration for his current players.
“It gives them great motivation,” he indicates. “It helps them see if you do the right things and you always work hard and conduct yourself in the right manner, you can achieve success at this level, and you can vault yourself into the national spotlight, regardless of the path you take.
“The players are always encouraged to see one of our own front and centre on the national team. It’s great to see her finally get that chance with the national team, and hopefully there’s more to come.”
Local boys’ OPDL teams didn’t quite reach the same heights as the girls this season. The OSU U14 boys posted the best record of the bunch with 12 wins, 3 losses and 5 ties to finish sixth overall out of 26 entries.
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