By Ottawa Sports Pages, For Ottawa South United Soccer Club
In 2003, Ottawa and soccer excellence were not words you’d frequently find together. Local teams struggled mightily to compete against the big fish from the Toronto area. Avoiding relegation from the top provincial soccer league was cause for celebration at the time.
When the Osgoode Rideau Soccer Association and South Nepean United came together to form Ottawa South United, the landscape started to shift. OSU was among the first youth clubs in Canada to hire full-time managers and coaches, individuals began obtaining university/college scholarships, and OSU Force teams became increasingly competitive.
In 2013, OSU’s U16 boys broke through and won Eastern Ontario’s first provincial high-performance league title. Two or three Ontario championships a season is now the new norm, and the club’s teams collectively post dominant records against Ontario’s best. OSU products are regularly selected for Canadian national team programs, and full teams of players now earn next-level soccer opportunities beyond high school each year.
Previously overlooked, Ottawa and OSU are now viewed as a hotbed for soccer talent by college, national team and professional scouts. OSU’s Nike gear is sported proudly by players, families and supporters all over town and beyond. The club has become a known force locally, provincially, nationally, and increasingly internationally. The OSU crest most definitely represents a mark of excellence.
In this special content, Bill Michalopulos, the Founding (and current) President of Ottawa South United, reflects back on 20 years of rich OSU soccer history, and also looks ahead to what appears to be a very bright future for the club that’s transformed soccer in our city.
Q: Ottawa South United Soccer Club is turning 20 years old this season. How do you feel about hitting that mark?
A: For sure it’s a really great milestone, but I almost can’t believe it’s true because it feels like we just started the club last year. That excitement to tackle new things is still there every day. And even with everything that’s occurred, the seasons have kind of gone by very, very quickly.
It doesn’t seem like 20 years. However, when we start seeing some of our alumni from when we started the club, having already gone through university, and they’re now coming back and contributing the club, some of our players have actually gotten married and are building their lives together – those are the kind of moments that remind you that, yes, time has passed and the OSU community has been growing for 20 years.
There are many other reminders too, whether it’s players who have gone on to achieve success at the top level – playing professional or for national teams, we’ve had over 300 players obtain university or college scholarships across the U.S. and Canada – or the creation of George Nelms Sports Park, kids who have kept these long-lasting friendships throughout their lives. The club’s definitely grown up.
Q: There are certainly a lot of big accomplishments and many big trophies the club has won over the years to potentially choose from, but what are you most proud of the club for achieving in these 20 years?
A: Our club really has created a brand of excellence in youth soccer. I remember waiting for a flight in London, England at Heathrow Airport and there was a whole family decked out in OSU gear. That was very telling for me.
We’ve definitely created a brand and well-deserved image of success in youth soccer, and basically what that means is we’ve provided a quality environment for our soccer-playing youth to maximize their opportunities. And we have seen clear evidence of that on the competitive side.
Now people are coming from all over the region – not just our direct geographical area, they’re coming from as far as Belleville and Kingston and Quebec to participate in our program. So that’s what I’m most proud of – that we’ve created this brand of excellence in the delivery of soccer services.
Q: Even your fiercest rivals have to concede that OSU has significantly changed the soccer landscape in the region, and probably in the province and the country too. How has the club managed to make such an impact and what do you feel are the biggest keys to your success?
A: It’s definitely a source of pride when we’re recognized by our peers, notwithstanding if we’re rivals. We’ve loved seeing the development of soccer in the region because ultimately we all love soccer and believe it’s the best game in the world.
I’m not sure if there’s a magic formula, but if you look at successful entities, whether in the sports world or in the business world, and you really do a deeper dive, you see there are a few things that kind of rise to the top. And, to me, some are quite obvious, but they’re very difficult to implement.
I remember when I came back from Switzerland and we settled in Manotick before OSU started – I rejoined soccer and what became obvious very quickly when I started coaching was, I’d see kids who have played soccer 5, 6 or 7 years and although you could see there were tremendous athletes who had considerable upside, they could not do simple things like passing the ball from 10 yards on a consistent basis. So you say, ‘What’s wrong with his environment?’ and you realize quickly that the environment, generally speaking, was operated by well-meaning volunteers, and that’s hit and miss.
So what the environment needed was consistency, application of professional standards, and quality programming and coaches, coupled with professional direction. The handful of us that came together to create OSU, we all love soccer, we play soccer, and soccer is part of our culture. But the second important thing is we also had strong executive management, experience running organizations, understanding marketing, finances and business processes. So it was the marriage of those two things, and the end goal of doing something better.
Introducing professional management to run the club day-to-day, to complement our volunteers, both technically and operationally, was another big part of the formula, along with a tremendous technical program that can be applied on a consistent basis. We brought in some outstanding coaches. We looked locally, nationally, and internationally. We made alliances with groups like Dallas Texans and Everton in England, because we knew that those environments were what we had to bring to Ottawa in order to optimize the talent that’s here.
And the last thing is a relentless pursuit of excellence in everything that we do. We consistently continue to survey the people who use our services because we know we always have to improve. And when we have success, that just motivates us and puts pressure on us to continue doing things better and keeping up that quality.
So that’s the formula basically. It’s not really magic, but it’s also not easy to do, especially consistently. Looking back, we’re fortunate to have a stable environment. There are a lot of people who have been instrumental in this journey – Stephen Campbell, our long-time treasurer, Peter McGann at the outset, Rene Braendli, who basically kickstarted girls’ soccer in Ottawa, Jim Lianos, our general manager from pretty much Day 1, and Craig Stead, our first OSU player to get a scholarship and now a leader alongside Jim, and Paul Harris, who particularly impacted the boys’ side of our OPDL teams when he joined OSU in 2013 from the Everton Youth Academy. Those are some of the names that contributed to the continued growth of OSU, and there have been many others too of course who we’re so grateful to.
The people who provide the guidance and oversight have been consistent throughout the years, and now we’ve built sustainability in our organization to allow new people to come in, and that prepares the club well for the next 20 years.
Q: What has changed the most at OSU since the club was founded and what remains the same?
A: One of the big things that’s changed is we were able to build the George Nelms facility, which I call the heartbeat of OSU. We’re tremendously proud of that – the work, the perseverance, and the investment we made to make that 32-acre site a reality. When our national teams were in town, they were told this is the facility you want to train at. That makes us so proud, and it’s such a huge asset for our community.
We’ve also seen that colleges from the U.S. are reaching out to us now, instead of us reaching out to them, because we’ve developed a reputation for player excellence. They’ll ask us, ‘Hey, do you have any kids who play this or that position, or this kind of player?’ to satisfy whatever their needs are. That means our brand has become known.
Over the years, our technical programming has become better and better. And we’ve also seen the emergence of OSU players that we can pass a torch to. We want to develop talent not only on the field, but we also want to develop talent for off the field.
What has not changed is the passion to be the best. We can’t wait for the next 20 years. We are going to keep building alliances with entities that can make us even better and continue improving our programs, and we’re also working hard to continue to be able to scale up. South Ottawa is rapidly expanding and the demand for soccer will continue for the foreseeable future.
The social demographics and the diversity of our population is changing, and we are taking steps to adapt to that too. We need to make sure that soccer remains accessible. We’ve taken concrete steps through our own means, and through third-party support like Canadian Tire Jumpstart, to ensure that accessibility remains a core value we have in our club.
Q: What do you feel are the main challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the next 20 years for OSU, and what are you most excited about?
A: The population growth of southern Ottawa is a challenge because you need the infrastructure to keep growing. And that’s an opportunity too – an opportunity for more people to take up soccer.
We’re looking forward to building our clubhouse at George Nelms this year to further enhance education and training opportunities for our players. And we also need an indoor dome. We’re currently in talks about establishing one to help us provide services to the scale that we want and need.
Another more immediate challenge is what I call the remnants of COVID. We kind of kept going through COVID through different means, but I noticed some of our competition has been negatively impacted by COVID a lot. I’d like to see the competition become healthier. We need strong competition around us because competition from others drives you and keeps you on your toes.
Another challenge is to make sure that the sport of soccer does not become arrogant. Kids’ sports is a competitive environment in general and we need to make sure soccer does not become cost-prohibitive, because kids will go play other sports.
And we also need to make sure soccer doesn’t become rules-prohibitive. What I mean by that is there’s an ever-increasing demand for compliance and rules and regulations by governing bodies. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. A lot of it makes sense, and a lot of it is the kind of stuff that we implemented in 2003 that’s given us an edge, in terms of management and governance practices. But we need to make sure that the compliance and the rules do not overtake the fun of the game, and to not overwhelm the clubs providing the services with unnecessary administration and bureaucracy.
The biggest opportunity to me is for our kids to develop a love for the game forever. And I have to say we want to see our girls and our guys consistently playing on our Canadian national teams. To me, that’s kind of the ultimate stamp of success when you’re running a soccer club.
So lots of exciting things ahead. The future looks bright.
Learn more about Ottawa South United Soccer Club at osu.ca.