By Dan Plouffe
They started out as underdogs – coming off a middle-of-the-pack finish last season – and they endured some major pre-season turmoil, but the end to the Ottawa South United Force under-15 girls’ 2018 soccer story was no less than historic as they captured Ottawa’s first Ontario Provincial Development League overall championship.
“I think they exceeded even our own expectations,” acknowledges OSU club head coach Paul Harris. “But the girls have always had a great work ethic, and they’re also a very tight-knit group. We’re delighted, and the girls deserve all the accolades, given their consistency and their performances.”
OSU clinched the OPDL crown with 3 games left in their campaign thanks to an untouchable 17-1-1 record. The Force outscored their top provincial rivals by a combined 51 goals, with only 12 conceded and in 19 matches. Goalkeeper Juliann Lacasse posted her 13th clean sheet of the season on Oct. 14 to move 9 points ahead of 2nd-place Vaughan with 2 to play (not to mention 19 points clear of 3rd).
This year, OSU added a few “difference-makers” to the squad who brought “quality and finesse in final third of the pitch.” Nyah Slusarenko is currently #2 in league scoring with 15 goals, while Georgia Hogan and Nibonile Dlamini are right on her heels with 14.
It was a transformative performance from a group that only flirted with the .500 mark last year. The team didn’t have many stars on Team Ontario, for instance, but this all wound up serving as a weapon, Harris maintains.
“They didn’t really get much attention when they were younger, and I think it’s kept them a little bit hungry,” he explains. “They took a different path to become a champion team, but they’ve just kept on moving forward, forward and forward.”
Coach forced from team
Harris, who works with all Force teams over the course of the season, got to work with the U15 girls’ group much more than expected early in the season. The team’s initial coach, Claire Ditchburn, was suspended for violating player solicitation rules, which ignited an off-field boardroom war between OSU and rival West Ottawa.
Needing a national ‘B’-licenced coach on the sidelines, Harris stood in for the first half-dozen games while the suspension went through appeal, though Ditchburn wound up moving back home to her native UK for the opportunity to work with Manchester City midway through the season anyhow.
So in stepped veteran OSU coach Abe Osman, who “really clicked” with the players right off the bat despite the frequent coaching changes.
“It was real difficult for them at first,” Harris notes, adding that the mix of coaches may have paid off in the end though. “It’s a real team effort here at OSU. There are a lot of people working with them, and sometimes that different voice can connect with different people.”
The Force allowed just 2 goals in their first 7 games – all victories – and “once they got rolling, they just kept on winning,” Harris recalls. “And what’s really pleased us is they’ve won in style.”
OSU earned a number of emphatic victories, including one 5-1 contest over 2nd-place Vaughan.
“But now we’re also challenging them,” Harris adds, “‘Be the first to win the league, and the (season-ending) Charity Shield (showcase game between the top-2 clubs), so that no one can question who is the best in the province.”
Want to challenge Cumberland champs
Strangely, however, there nevertheless exists a bit of doubt over which squad is truly the best in Ontario due to the current competition format, Harris notes. Across town, Cumberland’s U15 girls won the Ontario Cup – a season-long knockout competition OPDL teams are barred from entering – and went on to represent the province at the national championships.
OSU and Cumberland did play some close, competitive pre-season friendlies, but Harris says it would be interesting to see an Ontario Cup vs OPDL champion end-of-season match.
“They’ve obviously got some really strong players as well. We don’t want any ‘what ifs?’ We want to prove that we’re the best. We’re ambitious and we want to say that we won that title and we played everybody,” highlights the former Everton FC academy coach. “I know it’s still such a big thing to win Ontario Cup and go to nationals. It’s a shame these kids in the OPDL, which is hailed as the flagship, are not getting that opportunity.
“It would mean a lot to a lot of the clubs to have the opportunity to go and do it and see where they stand. It’s something we’d love to see.”