By Dan Plouffe
A number of local soccer players have parlayed next-level pre-season experiences into hot starts with their club teams.
For Keera Melenhorst, it was a trip to Barcelona alongside a handful of West Ottawa Warriors teammates for the Global Gatorade 5v5 Finals, where she was named tournament MVP en route to a runner-up finish.
“It was quite an experience,” recounts Melenhorst, who played her games at the 1992 Olympic Stadium. “Knowing the people that had played there before you… It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The under-15 team of Melenhorst, Taylor Dempster, Taylor Heard, Kelsey Pokoj, Sage Rocha and Emma Steen earned the trip thanks to their victory at the Canadian qualifier in Toronto.
The Warriors girls beat Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Honduras in the preliminary round, then topped Honduras again in semi-final before falling 1-0 to Brazil in their rematch.
“We definitely got better as we went on,” notes Melenhorst, who previously represented Canada at the Danone Nations Cup in Morocco as a 12-year-old. “We really got to develop as a team, and losing the finals I think helped us get mentally stronger.”
Melenhorst has most of her Ontario Player Development League season ahead of her with the Warriors, though she will move to Toronto come the start of the fall school year in order to join Canada Soccer’s REX national program.
“It’s going to be hard” leaving her team and moving away from friends and family, signals the Grade 9 Franco-Ouest high school student, but it wasn’t a difficult decision to make in the slightest since it moves her a step closer to her long-held goals.
“Getting into the national program in Toronto was for sure something I wanted, and now it’s hopefully to play for Team Canada,” she underlines.
Ontario players spark OSU
Melenhorst also played for the Team Ontario U15 girls in the springtime alongside a pair of Ottawa South United players. Juliann Lacasse and Marissa Gravel, who also have U14 Team Ontario member Claire Rea on their U15 OPDL side, credit their time with the provincial team for helping to launch their 5-0 start in OPDL play.
“We had a great preseason and we trained really hard, so I think we’re going to have a really good season here,” explains Rea, who previously played with Futuro boys’ teams before joining OSU, as did Gravel. “We want to win the league, or come close. It’s a big goal, but I think with the way we’re playing right now, there’s hope.”
The OSU group finished middle-of-the-pack last season, but there’s a different feel now, says goalkeeper Lacasse.
“I feel like we’re training a lot harder this year,” notes the past Gloucester Hornet.
“Because we have a flicker of hope, it’s kind of kicking in with some girls that this is happening and we can win it.”
Cobras debut in OPDL
The Cumberland Cobras are now officially OPDL participants. The new local additions to the provincial high-performance loop kicked off their home schedules with back-to-back U13 boys’ and girls’ games on June 2, plus a BBQ and 4v4 festival for U9-U12 players.
“There is a sense of pride that Cumberland is finally here,” highlights Cumberland girls’ club head coach Jessie Burgins. “We’ve always strived for this, regardless of whether it’s OPDL or not. This is the level most of the girls should be in. Now it’s like second-nature, honestly. We’ve been training that way, and the mentality has been at this level.”
No standings are kept for the U13 age group, so the season objectives are focused on “learning the basics, to be honest,” says Liam Hughes, coach for the OSU U13 girls.
“They’ve never played 11v11 before, so it’s actually getting used to the size of the pitch more than anything,” adds the OSU coach of 8 months, who had to endure adaptation of his own, having landed in Ottawa from England just in time for winter.
“It was a bit harsh, wasn’t it, with all the snow?” chuckles the past Manchester City academy coach. “But once we’ve got outdoors, it’s been nothing but a pleasure.”
Local trio on Team Canada
Ottawa soccer products Theo Bair, Jonathan David and Kris Twardek helped the Canadian U23 men’s soccer team to a 6th-place performance at the 2018 Festival International Espoirs Provence.
Canada missed out on the semi-final behind 2-1 Turkey despite their group’s only undefeated record, with a 0-0 draw against Portugal, a 1-0 win over Turkey, and 1-1 tie with Japan. Canada then fell 2-1 to host France to finish 6th overall.
Bair got on the scoresheet, while Twardek served as captain at the event.
It was stressful to the final moment, but Ottawa players Ariel Young and Olivia Cooke scored a FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup berth for Canada at the CONCACAF Championships, which wrapped up on June 12 in Florida.
An 89th-minute Canadian goal broke a 1-1 tie with Haiti in the bronze medal match as Canada grabbed the region’s last available FIFA berth.
Political instability in Nicaragua forced a mid-tournament postponement after Canada’s 4-0 opening victory over Bermuda on Apr. 20. The Canadians resumed play with a 2-1 win over Ottawa-raised Carmen Marin and Costa Rica, followed by a 1-0 defeat to USA. A 2-1 loss to Mexico in the semi-finals forced Canada into the do-or-die contest.