July 20, 2024
  • July 20, 2024
  • Home
  • League1 Canada
  • Strategic Development: The Bright Side to OSU’s Devastating 2022 Season
PLSQ Ottawa South United

Strategic Development: The Bright Side to OSU’s Devastating 2022 Season

By on March 12, 2023 0 2664 Views

Pulling into the parking lot at the Richcraft Recreation Complex in Ottawa’s west end, you would have no idea that a team in the third division of Canada’s soccer pyramid uses this turf as one of their two home pitches. But alas, on a humid late August day in 2022, Ottawa South United were at home there in front of a few dozen fans – mostly parents – taking on ninth-place AS Laval during the PLSQ regular season.

This scene was pretty standard for an OSU game so far that season: by the time the referee had blown his whistle for half-time, Laval had completely dominated play and possession, having only been held to a single goal by a stroke of OSU luck and an inspiring performance in net by Ottawa’s-own Louis Gamache.

Perhaps most disappointingly for Ottawa’s supporters, however, was that this game – which eventually ended in a 2-1 loss for OSU – was not out of the ordinary. Rather, it marked loss number 14 out of an eventual 19 on the season, which when paired with their 77 goals conceded and a last-place finish made 2022 one of the club’s worst-ever seasons at the semi-professional level.

Development > ‘dubs?

Normally after such a season, the winter months would be host to a whole collection of changes in preparation for the next year. We see this presently underway at League1 Ontario’s FC London who, after a terrible 2022 season akin to OSU’s, have announced a plethora of new signings ranging from academy players to USPORTS stars and former CPLers, too.

But for those at OSU, this sort of season was to be expected, even if it meant a 1-2-19 record.

PLSQ Ottawa South United
Photo Credit: League1 Ontario / Martin Bazyl

Having attracted players from the grassroots across the National Capital Region, the club has been known to produce some of the best young talent in the country from Ronan Kratt to Matteo de Brienne. Their alumni even include current Canada WNT/XNT player Clarissa Larisey, who is a League 1Ontario product herself having played for the OSU Force women’s side back in 2019.

Reflecting on the past season, OSU Director of Soccer Operations & Community Engagement Craig Stead mentions that when the club first entered a squad into the 2017 edition of League1 Ontario, the goal was never prestige or the possibility of big matchups.

“It was really about providing that pathway [to pro] within Ottawa in a sustainable way,” he says. The idea of playing bigger clubs in the Canadian Championship was never a factor in the club’s decision to join the league, and it would not be until 2018 that the L1O and PLSQ champions were granted entry into the competition anyway.

But while the prospect of playing an MLS or CanPL side is attractive as it brings fans, money, and exposure to the club and players, Stead notes that the club at large ‘would probably have to [decide]… the type of team that we want to put on the field’, whether that be a young development squad or a strong and experienced force of nature.

And thus presents the dilemma facing the club each year: every off-season, OSU decides whether to focus on their role as developmental stepping stone for players towards fruitful careers or to be competitive in nature, able to beat sides like AS Blainville for the PLSQ Cup. This namely falls to whether they want to raise the age profile of the squad by bringing in a few more experienced players, thus taking spots away from younger talent.

It seems that recently United has been leaning more towards the former with Stead pointing out that the club’s average player age is 19 years old, much lower than the league average. According to him, the club knows that having a younger group ‘will come with some challenges as it relates to the outcome of the game’ against teams whose average age is in the mid-to-higher twenties.

The idea of going towards the Canadian Championship would be terrific but we would probably have to [decide] … the type of team that we want to put on the field.”

Craig Stead, OSU Director of Soccer Operations & Community Engagement

But it isn’t all doom and gloom for Ottawa-based PLSQ fans, as there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. The drive to be more competitive is shared across all facets of the club, says Stead.

“Now that we’re back to full operations, the understanding of what a complete PLSQ looks like [has allowed the club] to retool”, he says, hinting that their incoming player signings will prove this. But while Leo Messi wont be doing OSU blue, they are looking for players to be ‘the spine’ of the team, ones who can hold a bit more responsibility as a squad forms around them.

“We’re here to prepare them for the future”

Coach Peter Mapendere seconds this sentiment, too. When speaking with him about his teams performance in last year, Mapendere consistently referred back to his ‘process’ of rebuilding his team. Having coached OSU back in 2018 and ’19 and then returning this past summer, Mapendere was familiar with the type of league that L1 Canada is, but adds that no one knew what to expect from PLSQ proper.

“Coming out of COVID, and we didn’t get to play any exhibition games” he says, leaving this team to be thrown into the regular season without any chance to develop a sense of unity amongst the squad.

“During our first game against CF Montreal, the players were shouting at each other… there was a lack of respect, a lack of team,” adds Mapendere, hinting at infighting which infected his squad, dividing itself into ‘cliques’ and ‘groups’. This inability to properly prepare for the season, mixed with the lack of unity and that the majority of his squad having never played in a senior league before, is what Mapendere attributes to the first two blowouts of the season.

But as the season progressed on, despite loss after loss, he does believe that the cohesion began to form around the leaders who showed themselves on the pitch. The coach hinted that after this first few games, a sense of camaraderie formed and the players understood their roles. Added to what Mapendere describes as an ‘open locker room’ where players were free to speak so long as it is constructive, he sought to create a professional environment where the players learned to rely on each other to try and bring out the best athlete within each of them.

Ultimately, this renewed spirit was capped off with their sole win of the season against Celtix du Haut-Richelieu on August 28th.

“The first win of the season is always going to be very very good… but this reminded our boys that they deserve to be here.”

Mapendere painted a picture of their locker room post game and the grand celebrations from a team who refused to give up, who continued to play despite the losses, and this win made them see the bigger picture. The scene described was very reminiscent of Ted Lasso’s AFC Richmond.

What’s Next For OSU

Throughout our discussions with both Craig Stead and Peter Mapendere, there was a sense of hopefulness which one may not expect from the PLSQ’s Wooden Spoon winners, but this may be connected to how League1 Canada teams operate. Both club reps mentioned how teams at this level tend to organize their rosters on one-to-two year cycles with rebuilds being a constant state of being. Players are not destined to stay in the third division forever; it is meant to be a stepping stone, a revolving door of young talent turned pro prospects, thus forcing teams to constantly update their team sheets.

For OSU, despite some of their stars like Jaeden Mercure, Arthur Lionel Polla Phudje (5th, PLSQ top scorers), Adam Ngoran, and Jacob Toste having yet to confirm their returns by the time this article is written, the sun is shining on 2023. The team unity mixed with an injection of new talent from a few projects in OSU’s 2005 player pool has Mapendere excited for the upcoming season. Although he isn’t expecting his team to be league champions next year, it is all a part of his ‘process’ to develop this squad into contenders, and that starts with getting more wins and more goals.

Much like Stead, Mapendere also mentioned building the spine of his squad to reinforce their play style. While he did say would like to see some of those aforementioned names be a part of that foundation, its obvious through their pre-season training that a handful of his other boys will be able to fill these holes if need be. Throughout our conversations both men sounded hopeful in their squad’s ability to take control of the upcoming season and be competitive as a mid-table team.

Ted Lasso Believe
Photo credit: Apple TV / Apple Canada

Ultimately, OSU’s success this coming season, says both Stead and Mapendere, relies on two key pillars.

The first is a belief from the players that they themselves belong. It was repeated multiple times that these boys are going up against guys sometimes ten years older than them and are constantly being pushed around. Thus, a resilience is needed should they wish to be contenders. They need to believe that they not only belong at this level, but also believe in the process and that while wins mean something, this experience will develop them into better prospects for potential academies, NCAA/USPORTS schools, or pro clubs.

The second is that they need to feel supported by the fans and the community. Unfortunately, games like the one against AS Laval are the norm for OSU, with a low attendance and lack of semi-professional atmosphere. Although Mapendere hinted at a potential venue change for the 2023 season which would see the club play out of Carleton University’s Taag Park, truly he wishes for the community to rally around his squad as ‘it is the next best thing, the next best level to Atletico [Ottawa]’. He hopes that a bigger fan base, a more accessible stadium, and the potential for PLSQ-CanPL double headers with Atletico Ottawa will give his team a renewed passion for the game and a vision of what they are playing and fighting for.

The 2023 PLSQ season is set to kick off sometime in the late spring alongside its three counterpart leagues in League1 BC, the newly announced League1 Alberta Exhibition series, and League1 Ontario. This year will mark Ottawa South United’s seventh season at the semi-professional level and only their second full season within the PLSQ.

Header Image Photo Credit: League1 Ontario / Martin Bazyl

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *