Community Clubs Soccer

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Ontario-champion West Ottawa Warriors aiming for first men’s national soccer title

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By Martin Cleary

The Ottawa soccer community has produced many great men’s amateur teams in the past two decades, and this year that honour belongs to the West Ottawa Warriors.

The Warriors clearly built a strong case in 2023 – the Ottawa-Carleton Soccer League men’s premier division champion (13 wins, one loss), the Ottawa Cup champion (3-0), and the Ontario Cup champion (5-0).

And they’re not finished yet. There’s still one more hurdle to scale for the Warriors and it’s a major one for many reasons.

By winning the summer-long Ontario Cup championship, the Warriors qualified to represent the province at Canada Soccer’s Challenge Cup Oct. 4-9 in Halifax. The men’s championship, which started in 1901, is part of the Toyota National Championships involving regional men’s, women’s and age-group champions.

Can the Warriors become the fifth Ottawa soccer program since 2003 to emerge as the national men’s amateur champion and join Gloucester Celtic (2022, 2021, 2016, 2013), Ottawa St. Anthony’s (2019, 2006), Ottawa Royals (2004) and Kanata Post (2003)?

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That’s the question Warriors’ head coach Stephen O’Kane is wrestling with in his soccer lab. The second-year Warriors coach, who has multiple years of soccer coaching experience at all levels, is trying to put together his best team of 20 players, raise enough money to cover the team expenses and devise a game plan so the players can be the last team standing after the gruelling five-game, six-day schedule.

During their regular season, the Warriors had a roster of 22 players – men with full-time jobs and personal commitments, seven university students and two U21 call-ups. At the moment, O’Kane has 17 players confirmed for his national-championship-run roster and is doing his best to add another three.

He is waiting for a decision by Canada Soccer about the eligibility of two players and is hoping he can add a fourth player from a university team. He already has received permission from the St. Francis Xavier University men’s soccer program to have three of their players compete for the Warriors at nationals.

“It’s not like building the roster again, but I’m trying to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s for a proper roster,” O’Kane explained.

Earlier this season, he lost centre-back Adam Malekos, who signed a pro contract with a team in Hong Kong. Another player had a pro tryout, but returned to the team.

Immediately after winning the Ontario Cup, O’Kane established a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise $20,000 to help cover the cost of travel, accommodation and maybe some meals for the team. The Warriors had raised $4,245 as of Friday evening.

“The fundraising is our biggest challenge,” he added. “We’re trying to make it financially feasible for everyone. We’re not a pro club and the cost is significant, if we don’t raise a chunk of money.”

O’Kane said Canada Soccer and the West Ottawa Soccer Club are providing some financial assistance, but the GoFundMe campaign was initiated to help take some pressure off the players, who are representing Ottawa at a national championship.

2023 Ontario Cup-champion captain Sebastian Rodriguez (left) and head coach Stephen O’Kane of the West Ottawa Warriors. Photo provided

Once the team arrives in Halifax and as the tournament evolves, O’Kane hopes to have the winning formula for using the right player combinations for multiple games in a short period.

The 10-team Challenge Cup will see the Warriors play four round-robin games. If they win their pool, they will meet the first-place team from the other pool for the gold medal. Second-place teams will compete for the bronze medal.

West Ottawa Soccer Club technical director Kwame Telemaque asked O’Kane, a friend and former teammate, to accept the job as the Warriors’ head coach two years ago. O’Kane, who has had successful coaching stints with the Algonquin College men’s program and Ottawa Fury youth teams in the past, had been coaching his children’s teams until the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Telemaque wanted to see the Warriors reach the top of the men’s premier soccer pyramid and O’Kane found a way with a young family to say yes to being the head coach.

“I took over after COVID and I tried to put the team back together. It was like starting from scratch,” said O’Kane, who knew he was facing a daunting task, especially given the reputation of the Celtic. “Our goal was to compete with them. We worked hard all winter and spring to add players.”

O’Kane started building his team by first looking within the West Ottawa organization.

“I knew to win or to try to get to that level we needed youth players, who were fit at the university level plus older and experienced players. I’ve got a mix that was good. It’s tough to get that balance,” O’Kane explained.

“I was very excited to coach the team. I was lucky I had experience. If I was coming over from a U12 team, it would have been a massive transition. But I’ve relied on my experience. I get questions now I didn’t get over the past four to five years (in youth soccer).”

O’Kane has assembled a team that is well balanced offensively and defensively. In OCSL play, the Warriors scored 60 goals in 14 games, which was No. 1 in the league, and only allowed 10 goals, which was second to the Celtic’s nine goals against.

During their three Ottawa Cup games, the Warriors scored eight goals and permitted only three goals. At the Ontario Cup, they produced 17 goals and were scored on seven times.

2023 Ontario Cup-champion West Ottawa Warriors men’s soccer team. Photo: Ontario Soccer

Javan Henry, who is lightning quick on the field and determined, was the leading scorer in the OCSL with 15 goals. Zach El-Shafei is fast and skilful and was fifth in the scoring race with nine goals. Owen McKee had six goals.

Playing centre-midfield, team captain Sebastian Rodriguez is well rounded, motivates his teammates and “can do it all,” according to O’Kane.

O’Kane is familiar with the play of centre-midfielder Mahir Hadziresec as he coached him as a youth player in the Fury program before he had a nine-year pro career in Europe, mostly with SSV Jahn Regensburg in Germany.

The goalkeeping duties are shared by Anton Favre and Mitch Leclair, who had four and three shutouts respectively in the OCSL season.

Leclair is the team’s penalty-shot specialist. When the Ontario Cup men’s final ended at 2-2 between the Warriors and Scarborough G.S. United and required penalty kicks, Leclair got the call and West Ottawa won 6-5 in the seventh round.

During the Ottawa Cup championship game against Celtic, a 1-1 deadlock forced another penalty-kick showdown and Leclair came on the field to spark the Warriors’ 4-2 decision.

“I was ecstatic,” O’Kane said about the Warriors’ victory in the Ontario Cup championship game. “It’s rewarding to see the guys being so committed and doing what I ask them to do. It’s nice to see them get the rewards.

“They only reached the quarterfinals last year and that may have spurred us on. It was cool being part of it.”

As the national championship approaches, O’Kane delivers many messages, but particularly this one.

“I keep harping on the number of games in the number of days,” he said. “We can take care of these, but if they’re there to party, we’ll lose. Hopefully, we can win and have an even bigger party.

“Between the games, the players have to recover, hydrate and rest. They have to take care of themselves. We’ll use our depth properly. I won’t start everyone every game and play them 90 minutes because they would not be useful. They have to put their egos aside.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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