Preview 2020: Rally Rabbit Edition

It’s still there on the back of the new kit!

FC Edmonton is all about tradition.

Tradition’s important.

Right. Yes. Actual soccer, too.

Thing is, all of this actually is relevant because this is a club that values keeping the core together, and that values loyalty. Jeff Paulus is a navy guy, after all.

Not everything was perfect last year, but Edmonton did end up third overall, which is more than fine, and way better than I predicted1I seem to always end up with really weird FC Edmonton previews. I’m not sure why..

The underlying numbers were a lot less than fine, and the Eddies often felt like a Colin Miller team, which is also traditional, and they’re now even more of a Colin Miller team because Hanson Boakai is back! They’re also going to play extremely boring soccer again this year, relying on a very strong back-line, and likely do so fairly effectively.

Trust Paulus to experiment a bit more, though. It’s easy to forget that FC Edmonton started it’s new life as something quite adorably adventurous before breaking down almost immediately.

You can also trust Paulus, whatever happens on PEI, to play the kids. If anything last year, he maybe biased a little too much towards underperforming vets like James Marcelin and Oumar Diouck, neither of whom delivered, and he took some time to trust Easton Ongaro, too. When he did, Ongaro put up the league’s best goals/90 numbers. Marcus Velado-Tsegaye made an early impact but faded a bit before graduating from high school.

Throw in Prince Amanda, who scored on his debut, and the Eddies look close to being what we hoped they’d be last year: a group of young, energetic Canadians ready to show that Alphonso Davies isn’t the only Edmontonian who’s good at this kicking thing.

Key Additions

It’s not just kids, though. Coming in are three potentially very good midfielders, two of them Canadians of yesteryear you’d probably forgotten existed, to try and create something out of the creative black hole that is Clarke Stadium2That can be the only explanation for the quality of that turf..

Boakai is a reclamation project–he was hyped way, way too early, cratered hard, and is now sort of being hyped again and I really wish we wouldn’t. Give him time and a simple, useful role. I like that Jeff Paulus stands by these guys, and that in turn means he’ll get the best out of Boakai if anyone can, but both Keven Aleman and Erik Zetterberg are the bigger adds, and if they live up to billing, can transform FC Edmonton’s game and leave Boakai free to find his balance.

Key Departures

As much as Paulus stands by his guys, he also gets rid of the guys who aren’t hauling their weight. Fair enough. Gone is Marcelin, along with long-time Eddie Bruno Zebie and local hero Randy Edwini-Bonsu. Ajeej Sarkaria has not been heard from since the fall and presumably got sucked into the black hole. Occupational hazard in an Edmonton midfield.

Ajay Khabra, also part of that midfield, is now in Ottawa after what was called a “cap crunch” but given the other players released was probably more of a “didn’t do enough” crunch. Paulus said lovely things about him, but he also didn’t pick up his contract option.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Key Players

Easton Ongaro (forward)

A lot has been written about Ongaro because of his goals/90 numbers. Those probably aren’t entirely sustainable over the course of a season. (A tournament? Maybe.) 0.79g/90 is world-class level.

I’d still keep an eye on him, though, and Edmonton signed him to a multi-year deal because, if he does sustain those numbers in 2020 and maybe 2021, there will be suitors.

He was also sometimes all the Eddies had going. At their best, when the Eddies went on that mid-summer run, Ongaro was effective a second striker off of Tomi Ameobi, providing hold-up play and vision along with a goal threat. He can play off the right wing, too, making smart runs to the back post that make the Eddies’ many, many crosses much more dangerous. It’s those smarts, not just his size, that make him so attractive.

Keven Aleman (attacking mid)

Edmonton did not have this kind of player last year. Aleman is not the semi-phenom prospect who turned down a TFC contract and bombed out in Spain. He’s since gone on to  a decent-if-not-flashy spell as a decent-but-not-flashy CONCACAF level player at Saprissa along with a couple good years in USL with Sacramento3Back in my preview last year, I thought it would be a very good sign for the league if we started luring players from the likes of Saprissa. Aleman’s Canadian and wasn’t always a starter at the Costa Rican giants, but he’s that level of player, and actually one of the ones I was thinking of when I wrote it..

There’s a welcome ambition to this signing–Aleman is not an ex-Eddies academy grad being repatriated from some sticky misadventure in the European lower leagues. He solves a core creative problem for Edmonton and solves it with a proven résumé. He’s domestic, and he makes Edmonton a better team even if he doesn’t deliver right away on PEI. Aleman will be a centrepiece in this league for a long time.

Erik Zetterberg (central mid)

Zetterberg flew under the radar a bit when he signed, to the extent I didn’t even jot down a note about him and almost missed it myself, though he’s mentioned in the article about Khabra I linked above.

His résumé in Sweden is very similar to another underrated midfielder: Forge’s Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson, though it sounds like Zetterberg might be a little more of a two-way guy than Achinioti-Jonsson is.

Edmonton need him to be the guy who can make that first pass, the one to open space and start a move, because that, too, was too often entirely absent in 2019. Almost every attack started from Ramon Soria, often playing left-back and almost always asked to do way too much. Son Yong-chan is not a really great passer but can absolutely do the chasing required to let Zetterberg make plays, and it means Soria can be patched in elsewhere.

As always with a new country and new league, it can take players time to fit in. The PEI tournament is not likely to be especially forgiving with only four teams going through, so Paulus will have to quickly figure out how to make this midfield work together. But the pieces are there.

Tactics and Positional Depth

That balance may be made a bit easier by Raul Tito’s absence, though it comes at the expense of another potential creative piece. On a team like the Eddies, there can be such a thing as too many freewheeling cooks in the kitchen.

It may also mean Boakai has to start a bit more than I think he might have off the left, but he’s another where the weird format and lower pressure on PEI might actually help.

Easton Ongaro can play on the right, or up top with Ameobi, or alone with Velado-Tsegaye on the right. Edmonton have options! In attack!

You’ll notice Son doesn’t start here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Alternatively, Paulus spent some time back in the winter talking about a back three. They’re all the rage these days, but I can’t really see how it benefits Edmonton. In Amer Didic and Mélé Temguia they already have two excellent defenders who can handle both space and the ball. I suppose Soria or Kareem Moses could slide in there and it would maybe hide some of Jeannot Esua’s technical limitations at wing-back, but honestly, it just feels like one of those audacious experiments and I doubt we’ll see quite as many of them this year.

Strengths

Ongaro could easily explode in a tournament like this, especially if Ameobi stays healthy and Edmonton can get more out of the midfield to get him space. If everyone is talking about someone’s performance at this tournament, it’s as likely to be an Eddie, either Ongaro or one of the other kids.

Defensively, too, since Edmonton added TFC’s young left-back Terique Mohamed on loan this week. Another player who probably should have been in Orlando, Mohamed will instead get opportunities on PEI and he’s at a stage in his development where he should take them.

Weakness

Depth. Jeff Paulus keeps essentially passing on the USPORTs draft to pull in marginal guys from the academy. In a situation like PEI, you need those depth pieces to play at least a few minutes. Instead, neither David Chung (the other one) or Jake Bosch were signed4Nor were they expected to, which means Edmonton will have to redraft them, albeit probably not in 2020 so much as in 2021, since neither will have played much since 2019..

Instead, Edmonton are betting on guys who did well last year with the U20 side in the Alberta Major Soccer League. If injuries crop up, especially in midfield, players like Anthony Caceres and Chance Carter are going to have make a big jump fast, because there isn’t much behind most of the starters.

I’m quite keen on how Edmonton use that reserve set-up and am eager to see more CanPL teams set up something similar once Covid is past. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be an easy transition, though, as we saw with players like Cavalry’s Victor Loturi in 2019.

Wildcard

Prince Amanda scored on his debut and is just built for win-at-all-costs games that can get a little stretched. He maybe should have played more last year, and he offers a genuine direct threat with his pace that nobody else on the roster can. For all Edmonton were pretty route one last year, they could only ever look for Ameobi’s head. At 31, he’s not offering much threat in behind anymore.

As much as I knock the depth above, in sticking by guys like David Doe and picking up Wanderers cast-off Duran Lee, Edmonton are putting themselves in a position where those players have a reason to work for minutes. If one of them takes the next step, Edmonton could take a big leap as a team, but you can say that every year. That’s the nature of developmental football–good and bad.

Prediction

I had them fifth in April, and kept flipping Edmonton and Wanderers 5th/6th. That was for a full season, though, where teams tend to revert to the underlying numbers. In a tournament, anything can happen, and you don’t bet against a back-line like Edmonton have.

They’ll be in a fight with Pacific and York to make the second round. How comfortably that goes is anyone’s guess, including probably their own.

About Dylan Matthias 161 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.

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