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Atletico Ottawa program helping young Indigenous players succeed on the pitch

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It's an early start to the day, but seven-year-old Ryan Fraser can't wait to start soccer practice.

"The coaches are very nice. They do a good job and its fun," said the young striker.

Fraser is learning the fundamentals of soccer through a partnership between Atlético Ottawa and the Odawa Native Friendship Centre.

The club's new Equal Access program is aimed at Indigenous youth between the ages of 7 and 12 and aims to break down barriers to access the game at all levels.

"Soccer is the lowest barrier of entry to any sport in the world," said Atlético Ottawa community relations manager Thomas Stockting. "We want to make sure anyone who wants to participate in the game can and there are no barriers."

The fees are waived with coaches from the soccer community volunteering their time and facilities.

"We work on things like balance, coordination and jumping," said Ibrahim Soukary, the owner and trainer of SAF Performance, a training centre in Little Italy.

"So it's easier to run with the ball, shoot with the ball and pass.”

Some participants also caught the eye of Atlético's midfielder Gabriel Mendes Antinoro.

"Mason caught my eye," said the midfielder, talking about a young player in the program.

"His footwork was good. Some moments I thought he had better footwork than me."

The kids are now halfway through the 8 week program. Families say programs like this one have provided accessible and inclusive options for Indigenous youth in sport.

That's made a big difference for 12-year-old Ziigwaan Adams.

"It's nice because I feel like everyone is included," said Adams.

"I've never seen him play so well and I think it's the intense focus on skills development," said mom, Tricia McMguire-Adams. "He's at an age growing into his skills, growing into his body and it's nice that he can do it among his friends and in his community."

Organizers say this launch is just the beginning and are hoping to create more opportunities for accessibility and further grow the game in Ottawa.

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