Tillsonburg's first-ever Ontario Youth Soccer League U17 team has been holding its own against some big fish in very big soccer pond.
"It's fun being the little country team," said BDR International Ltd coach John Twinem after a 4-3 loss to division-leading North Mississauga Saturday night.
"We've really become the talk of OSA – we're hearing things from all over the place. It's been fun to see that."
Twinem said two rules changed with Tillsonburg's introduction into OYSL – the province's elite youth soccer league – after promoting from WOYSL L3 last September. Tillsonburg had squeezed through with a late come-from-behind win over Waterloo in their final regular season game, narrowly edging North London.
"They never expected a small-town team to be involved in OYSL," said Twinem, noting the league had not paid referee travel fees since its creation in 1993. That changed when Tillsonburg – without top-level carded refs – arrived on the scene with a need to bring in referees from the London/St. Thomas area.
"They said 'we never had our referees have to travel to a separate town before.'"
Also in the seven-team U17 West Division are Oakville, Brampton, Kitchener, Clarkson, Hamilton and undefeated North Mississauga, BDR's most recent opponent.
A bit short-staffed Saturday night, BDR came close to upsetting one of the top OYSL teams under the lights Saturday at the Tillsonburg Soccer Park.
BDR's Eddie Richter struck first, but North Mississauga replied with three first-half goals, then went up 4-1 midway through the second on a free kick.
"Things looked really good when we scored... and we actually could have had a second goal," said Twinem. "We missed a 'sitter.' The ball was just on top of the seven-yard box, the goalie was rushing, but he (Treven Vanderhaeghe) put it just past the post. After we scored our first goal it could have been up 2-0... and the game looks very, very different."
Tillsonburg regained some momentum midway through the second half. Tillsonburg midfielder Zach Langley converted on a penalty shot in the last 15 minutes, and the visitors seemed to be on their heels. Langley scored again, running on to a free-kick cross to one-time a shot into the Mississauga net with five minutes left to pull within one. But time ran out before BDR could equalize.
North Mississauga currently leads the U17 West Division with a 3-0 record, while Tillsonburg, 0-2 after a 4-2 season-opening loss to Glen Shields, is looking for its first OYSL win.
"(North Mississauga) are repeat Canadian champions," noted Twinem. "They've won the Canadian championship the last two years. Huge population to draw from... and highly selective. Last year when they were OYSL champions, they had to beat the Toronto FC Academy to win that spot, and I'm pretty sure they have a solid representation from the provincial and national team programs. They've been at this level for so long.
"These guys just did a great job tonight. I'm really, really pleased with the way the guys are stepping up to this level.
"A lot of it was they maintained good discipline and unit play. And we can tighten things up better on that. North Mississauga, they're good at playing into that central man – the man who finds the space in the gap – and we need to tighten that up. But as a unit, the guys maintained a high level of discipline."
Trailing by two goals at half, Twinem had encouraged them to win the one-on-one battles and treat every battle as a 'new' battle, and make sure they kept going forward, forcing the play.
"And that's what we did, we outscored them 2-1 in the second half. It was good to see."
BDR International had continued training through the winter in preparation for their first OYSL season.
"Over the course of the winter they were continuing to make progress. We knew we were going to have to deal with a much higher speed of play."
With that in mind, the coaches focused on taking the level of intensity up and making quick decisions.
"They've been responding well to that. There is still a long way to go, but they've certainly made a huge, huge amount of progress... and they just keep making progress."