By Martin Boyce
The Ottawa South United Force under-15 girls’ soccer team earned a pair of historic feats in dramatic fashion in August.
The Force became the first team from Eastern Ontario to capture an OPDL Cup title, while Claire Ditchburn is believed to be the first female head coach to win an Ontario Player Development League crown since its start in 2014.
But one piece of history they won’t get to chase is to become the first team from their club to compete at a national championships.
First, the thrill of victory.
OSU had advanced to the OPDL Cup final at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan thanks to earlier 1-0 wins over West Ottawa and Whitby.
Team-leading scorer Jade Taylor-Ryan registered her usual goal per game to spring OSU to a 1-0 2nd-half lead that they’d hold until the final play of the game, when Vaughan tied it up with a freekick goal to send the game straight to penalty kicks.
Team Canada player Isabella Hanisch, Taylor-Ryan and Martina Milito confidently drilled home their shots from the mark, while goalkeeper Ashley Pitcher unnerved the hometown crew playing in their backyard to clinch the shootout triumph for the Force.
“Some of the penalties from our girls were fantastic,” underlines Ditchburn, highlighting the focus it took to rebound from the last-minute goal against. “They were probably as close to getting unstable as you can get, so that was pleasing that they stepped up when it was needed.”
The victory ensured Ditchburn’s spot in the record books – a quick ascent for the Edinburgh native who joined OSU’s staff last November after coaching the Hibernian Ladies FC in the Scottish Women’s League.
“Of course it’s nice, but it’s not really a big deal to be honest because the things that are important were that the girls showed great character and great mental strength in order to win,” says Ditchburn. “I feel very privileged and honoured, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m just a lot more happy for the girls.”
Ditchburn has been impressed by the setup at her new club and for women’s soccer in Canada, with “fantastic” facilities and dedicated staff.
“I think the girls are a lot more professional at a younger age in terms of their mentality to training and looking after themselves away from the pitch,” she says, comparing Canada to Scotland. “It’s looking very promising.”
Another example of increased opportunities in women’s soccer were the recent Vancouver Whitecaps FC talent ID sessions hosted by OSU, Ditchburn adds. Many local male players have gone into pro clubs’ youth academies in the past, but now female players are also being scouted to join paid residency programs as well.
Bringing in a coach like Ditchburn from overseas to coach at a community club is another strong sign of women’s soccer’s growth.
“We wanted to up our female role models,” signals OSU club head coach Paul Harris, an import himself from England via Everton FC. “It’s something we believe in.”
Harris was also on the sidelines for the OPDL Cup final, which “was not good for my heart,” he smiles, though he was proud to see the team earn the Cup crown on the heels of their east division and OPDL Charity Shield titles last season.
“It was a a great achievement for the girls. They were delighted,” Harris recalls. “But I’d be lying if I said it had the same feeling as an Ontario Cup victory.”
OPDL teams can’t enter nationals qualifier
The Ontario Cup has “prestige and everybody knows about it,” explains Harris, and for the U15, U17 and senior age groups, a Cup win also carries with it a berth in the National Championships.
OSU has accumulated a great number of provincial prizes since breaking through for the region’s first crown in 2013, but a nationals appearance remains an elusive missing piece.
Their bounty includes several Ontario Cup titles (though not in age groups with national competitions), and Ontario Youth Soccer League championships that came in nationals age group divisions (though those squads did not win in Cup play).
Now they’ve earned a Cup title in a nationals age group from the exclusive top high-performance provincial loop, but Ontario’s representatives will instead be the winners of the Ontario Cup, which OPDL teams are barred from entering.
“We would love to be allowed to go into Ontario Cup,” says Harris. “Are we the best in the province? We think so, but we don’t know, because we don’t get the opportunity to play teams outside of the OPDL.”
The OPDL regulates how frequently teams are allowed to play games – inside and outside of league play. With a philosophy focused on individual player development over team trophies, the number of games for the larger Ontario Cup and a potential nationals trip would add too many on top of a league schedule that runs from May to November.
Harris maintains Ontario’s nationals representatives should be the champions from league play instead of Cup competition, similar to the professional Champions League.
“You’ve got to win week-in, week-out,” notes Harris, who would also like to see powerhouse Ontario granted more than a single entry in nationals, like the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga receive in Champions League due to their recognized strength.
“It would give you a much truer reflection of who the best team is,” he adds.
4 local teams top OPDL tables
With roughly a third of the season left to play, the Force U14 and U15 boys also sit atop their OPDL east division standings along with the OSU U15 girls.
The West Ottawa Warriors are the current kings of the U16 boys’ loop, while their U15 boys and U16 girls still remain within striking distance of the top in their divisions.
—with files from Dan Plouffe