Invert the Pyramid: FC Edmonton and formational foundations

Inverted pyramid architecture from Eastern Europe.
Edmonton could go full new-age with the formation. (Credit: Thomas Ledl.)

I have no idea how Edmonton is going to line up come April 28th. I could honestly see a 2-3-5. Invert the pyramid!

No, seriously. (Not really.) If you haven’t, read Jonathan Wilson’s excellent Inverting the Pyramid, which is fascinating both tactically and historically. To wit: in the 1970s and 80s, “modern” football teams slowly moved away from using large numbers of attacking players and started using more defenders.

Of late, thanks to coaches like Pep Guardiola, it’s been slowly shifting back. Fullbacks today are more like wingers, and often start either much higher on the wings or tuck into central midfield positions, giving modern possession-based teams a look a lot like an old 70s line-up sheet when they have the ball–two centre-backs cycling possession, four or five attackers moving interchangeably, and a midfield mostly moving between lines.

If that’s the future, FC Edmonton are well-equipped to realize it. Good thing, too, since this is a team that’s going to be built heavily from young talent that should still be playing in ten years.

Jeff Paulus was Colin Miller’s assistant during the Eddies’ NASL days. Miller was perhaps more likely to trot a 1970s 2-3-5; thus far, Paulus has talked much more about attacking, fluid soccer, and the roster is as full of attackers as it is light on defensive depth.

FC Edmonton Academy group shot.
FC Edmonton created an academy in 2012, becoming just the fourth professional team in Canada to have an academy outside the MLS-adidas deal.

As the only Canadian Premier League team with an academy and also one of the smaller financial players, Edmonton are unlikely to try and compete with big signings and instead will try to develop within, as they always have done. Even their “big” signing last week, Amer Didic, has Edmonton academy connections. Where other teams have helped define the league by importing experienced professionals and repatriating Canadian stars, Edmonton will be setting its own bar developmentally. This is by far the club most likely to produce a star you’ve not heard of today.

Key Players

James Marcelin, somewhere in midfield

Marcelin is a long-time MLS and USL veteran and Haitian international. He’s getting on a bit in years and he joined up with the team late due to some visa problems, but by kick-off he should be good to go.

He’s mostly a defensive midfielder, though he likes to make late runs more than is typical of players in that position and he’s perhaps less of an anchor man than some d-mids. He’ll likely form a double-pivot of sorts with the equally-industrious (but younger) Son Yong-chan, or possibly with a converted defender like Ramon Soria, who might allow Marcelin to play higher.

Marcelin will have to provide the experience, though. The rest of the Edmonton midfield is relatively young and/or inexperienced. When things start getting wobbly, Marcelin will be the guy expected to steady the ship.

Ramon Soria, centre-back

Exactly where Soria will play is not clear. The ex-Fury man is a leader (and also a lawyer) who should, along with Kareem Moses, help anchor the back-line. Positionally, though, he raises some interesting questions: he’s either one of the strongest ball-playing CBs in the league or a solidly responsible left-back, and since the Eddies signed Amer Didic, there’s been talk of him playing in central midfield alongside Marcelin.

Whichever spot he doesn’t play will be filled by a player with limited professional experience, likely Jeannot Esua at LB or Mélé Temguia at centre-back. So far in preseason, it looks like Esua at LB, but it’s hard to know for sure what we’ll see on opening day. Whichever it is, Soria needs to mentor that younger player–and probably be ready to cover for a fair few mistakes.

David Doe, forward

A 19-year-old who’s spent time in Edmonton’s academy, Doe absolutely lit up the CCAA last fall, with 22 goals in 11 games. That is very, very good even if the Alberta conference is relatively weak. The NAIT Ooks are consistently good on a national level, though, so Doe playing that well for them as a teenager bodes very well.

There are other CCAA players in this league. I tend to think the jump in quality is going to be too high for most of them–it’s not that CCAA is bad so much as CanPL is just set up to be something completely different. Doe, though, should be on everyone’s list as a darkhorse youngster. He’s been in a professional system for a while with the academy and has even made an appearance in NASL on Edmonton’s way out in 2017.

Tactics and positional depth

FC Edmonton have some real question marks in goal. Dylon Powley has very little professional experience and was the Foothills back-up to his rival down the Queen Elizabeth Expressway, Marco Carducci. Connor James was one of the better goalkeepers in USPORTs, but he played in a weak Alberta end of Canada West where he faced relatively few shots, and his numbers against the better teams were not as good. If CanPL turns out to be a higher level, James could struggle. This won’t be as easy as posting clean sheets in big wins over MacEwan, Univ. of Lethbridge, and Mount Royal.

Kareem Moses should have right-back locked down, and could be one of the more effective if unspectacular fullbacks in the league. He’s not a technician but he gets forward and works hard, which will go a long way in Year 1. Long-time Eddie Allan Zebie gives Jeff Paulus a steady hand in depth, and could play at centre-back if required.

Mélé Temguia is one of many ex-Impact Academy players in this league, and played in the Australian National Soccer League last year with Halifax’s Zach Sukunda, where he was apparently a “revelation”. He’s a behemoth of a man, and will be useful just for that, plus he’s still only 23.

Amer Didic was a late signing1Thanks for making me rewrite large parts of this, Jeff. Thanks a lot. and the former Swope Park Rangers standout will be expected to lead Edmonton’s backline. He fills a big hole there, but it’s important to note he hasn’t played much in MLS. His best comparable is probably a player like Louis Béland-Goyette, a returning Canadian who didn’t catch on in MLS, but unlike the ex-Impact guys, Didic has already played three full seasons with Sporting KC’s reserves, and he’ll be comfortable at this level.

Jeannot Esua is more of a wildcard. He developed in Cameroon, made a trip to Orange County, didn’t stick there, and ended up back in Cameroon. It’s an odd career path, and he’s 22, so doesn’t have that many developmental years left. He hasn’t looked great in pre-season, but sometimes you can shield an athletic left-back. Edmonton have no depth at the position, though, aside from Soria.

There’s very little depth behind James Marcelin, either. Son, who’s an open triallist with a hit-or-miss record in Singapore, might start, while most of the other midfielders on the roster have a distinctly attacking bent, thus why this line-up starts to look more and more like a 2-3-5 with the two steady centre-backs. If Marcelin gets hurt, Edmonton are in a lot of trouble.

In attack, Ajay Khabra is a USPORTs pick, Edem Mortotsi is an academy grad, and Philippe Lincourt-Joseph is an ex-Impact Academy player with very little pro experience for a guy who’s 24.

Oumar Diouck will be considered the key playmaker but his résumé in Belgium is less than impressive. He’s twice been out-of-contract in the past three years, and the Belgian Second Division2Helpfully, also called the First Division B, but also the Proximus League. side he played for was pretty terrible. Most of his experience is in the semi-pro third tier. He had a more promising spell in Holland as a 21-year-old, putting up some numbers in the Eerste Divisie, but he hasn’t replicated that anywhere since, and he’s now 26.

Randy Edwini-Bonsu is a local hero who will do interesting things out wide. Tomi Ameobi is a bit the same–those two guys embody the old Eddies NASL teams that would throw everything, including sometimes their literal selves, at you in the hope something would happen. REB and Ameobi have made careers out of interesting things happening even when they didn’t outright mean them to, but both are getting to the age where that kind of game takes more of a toll.

The attack is rounded out by a couple 17-year-old academy grads with very rough edges and Ajeej Sarkaria, who also put up very good USPORTs numbers in the same not-so-great conference as James.

I still have some concerns about the spine of the team, but Didic’s late signing helps there, and he’s already played this year with San Antonio3Albeit, not especially well. so he should be match fit. I worry about depth and pace down the middle, though.

Preseason hasn’t been that kind to FC Edmonton, who have at least done the off-field solid of making highlights readily available, even for games they’ve lost. That’s a mature move for a club that knows its way around the professional scene A 2-0 loss to Cavalry and a 1-0 loss to Halifax suggest this iteration of FC Edmonton might struggle to score goals, even if Didic makes them more defensively sound.

The problem you get into when you have a lot of interchangeable attacking options is that, without a pretty strict tactical plan, too many attackers can get in each others’ way. You’ve got Marcelin making late runs, Son hounding the ball, guys like REB and Diouck who need time and space, Moses and Esua overlapping, plus Tomi Ameobi crashing into everything and everyone.

They should be exciting enough. The question I’ve seen so far is getting everything moving quickly enough. I like Paulus’ ideas about attacking football, but there’s some real prototyping may need to happen to prove it on the pitch, especially with a whole crew of young guys learning that tactical discipline.

I think Edmonton will be a lot better in a few years than they are right now.

Projection: 6th (Spring); 6th (Fall)

FC Edmonton player during match against Calgary U23s.
Edmonton will have one of the youngest teams in CanPL, giving the reins to academy players in key positions.

I can’t help but feel like this Edmonton side, aside from being a bit of a work in progress, might be tactically five or six years ahead of its time.

This winter, each head coach in CanPL had to make something of a guess about what the level of play in this league would be. FC Edmonton had the built-in advantage of a crop of players ready to go in the academy and a bunch of connections to former grads. It feels, though, like they’ve abdicated that hypothetical on the level of play to other teams, letting Forge, Valour, and York define separate styles while Edmonton builds within.

There’s off-field logic to this, but it means Edmonton are chasing the pack a bit in Year 1, and they risk being left further behind if the academy doesn’t produce stars right away. Year 1 is still important even if Edmonton are a “returning” team in the market. It’s also a team that historically struggled to draw fans. Winning would help. So would a young star, especially in attack.

I expect Edmonton to be difficult to play against, and there are ways I could compare this team to Halifax in the way both clubs have let other teams define the league’s style of play. Edmonton feel less reactive, though, and more progressive–there’s a style Jeff Paulus clearly wants, and he’ll get his boys there. There isn’t the kind of veteran savvy on this team to grind out results and frustrate other teams, however.

Line-ups become a bit more flexible with the addition of Didic. I would not put Soria in midfield–I would put him at left-back, where he’s played plenty often, and where he gives them a better option in possession with his excellent left foot. I’m not 100% sold on Son Yong-chan in midfield, but he’s defensively adept enough to let Marcelin get forward a bit.

There are options–Soria could push into midfield while Esua starts; Zebie could fill in if Temguia struggles or someone were to get hurt.

Diouck can play on the left but is right-footed and will cut in, which could be interesting, especially if Esua turns out to be better than I expect at providing danger from out wide.

Expect to see a lot of David Doe, Edem Mortotsi, Prince Amanda, and Marco Tsegaye rotating through those four broadly attacking options, and I’d expect the shape to flit between various hybrid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1/4-4-2s, all of which will be very possession based with lots of interesting supporting runs and lots of interesting opportunities for Edmonton’s opponents on the counter.

For fun…

…though it’s not actually a true 2-3-5. This is similar to how teams like Manchester City and Liverpool line up in practice–usually the line-up card says its a 4-3-3 but it’s not: the fullbacks pinch hard into midfield and/or attack like old-school wide midfielders while the d-mid drops deep to orchestrate.

This actually fits what Edmonton have remarkably well, and is kinda what I see when they talk about putting Soria in midfield. Marcelin likes to get forward–he’s more of a playmaker here, while Son slides wider to shuttle play. Moses does something similar on the right while Soria acts as the conductor, using his left foot to spread play and recycle possession. In Didic and Temguia, Edmonton have two centre-backs who can be both mop up long clearances and reset possession. Mortotsi’s role is really that of a second striker adept at breaking through the lines–which I’m not sure Mortotsi is, but that could be any of Edmonton’s stable of young attackers, while Ameobi is the centre-forward creating havoc in the box.

About Dylan Matthias 91 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

2 Comments

  1. 6th overall? I think you underestimate the squad. JP has put together a strong side. They are better than Hfx, Pac, York, and Cavs.

  2. I actually feel slightly bad about where I put Edmonton. From 2nd to 6th it is really hard to choose an order and it could really go anywhere. I was least sure of Edmonton’s depth and almost switched them with York, a team I have similar questions about, but I think York’s top-end talent is better.

    I also wrote quite a lot of this before Didic was signed–just the reality of pulling it all together by this week. A team could sign a big player tomorrow (our transfer window is still open) and all of this would go out the window. If he stays healthy and can be as effective in Paulus’ system as he was in Swope Park’s, Edmonton could easily rise. They’re probably the prediction I feel least sure about.

    If that helps.

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