Ten Years On: FC Edmonton 2021 Preview

Clarke Stadium is kind of a weird place--I still sort of believe there might be a black hole beneath that turf. It would feel more like a stadium if Edmonton won more often, though.

I was surprised when Jeff Paulus stepped down, until I thought about it for a few minutes.

Paulus is one of the most stand-up guys in Canadian soccer. He was always going to take responsibility first, even if little that happened last season, at least in my view, was his fault. That doesn’t matter. The buck stops with him.

I’ve met all the coaches in CanPL (save Pa-Modou Kah) at press conferences in Halifax, and Paulus was a former navy man through and through: he’s candid, perceptive, well-spoken, unafraid to answer hard questions. I do not think we have seen the last of him in Canadian soccer.

Whether Edmonton needed a new voice or not is tough to say without being in the room. To me, it looked like 2020 was more about Amer Didic being cleated by Kyle Bekker, about Kéven Aleman yelling at young prospects, about inaugural captain Chris Kooy’s tragic passing.

Paulus took all that on his shoulders. This was a team he’d coached to third overall in 2019. It had problems, even many of them, but last place in 2020 is  on the players.

Most of them are still around, even as Alan Koch and Eric Newendorp usher in a new regime as coach and GM, respectively–Paulus had been doing both.

Newendorp is kind of fascinating in his own right: he’s an American baseball guy from Oklahoma whose main involvement with soccer was with Rayo OKC, a club to which the words “ill-fated” don’t do justice. I doubt Newendorp ever wants to hear the word Rayo ever again, and Eddies games against Ottawa could be interesting because I wouldn’t blame him if he harboured a grudge against the entire city of Madrid, and not just the Vallecas neighbourhood.

The thing is, FC Edmonton is in a challenging spot off the field right now. What this club needs more than anything–and what Newendorp promised upon being hired–is to win. Enter Alan Koch, and your 2021 Eddies.

I have a theory with Alan Koch, which is that he doesn’t (yet) know all that much about CanPL and is basically running FC Edmonton like a low-budget USL team.

Given Koch’s success with a (not so low-budget) USL team, this isn’t a bad strategy. He led FC Cincinnati to a US Open Cup semi-final, and nearly beyond. Before that, he coached with Whitecaps Residency and with Simon Fraser, and neither program does a lot of the pan-Canadian unearthing of talent that falls within the purview of a Canadian Premier League side.

This working theory is how you get Kyle Porter, who a few more than a few years ago was a decently average USL player. He has since declined, first with Atlanta Silverbacks and then with Tampa in USL, more recently with York, where he’s been little more than an occasional starter, and rarely impactful even then.

On the other hand, Porter’s a well-spoken and composed veteran presence in a team that needed one. Whatever he can provide on the pitch, he will provide it with professionalism and dedication. He’s never been anything but.

It’s also how you get Fraser Aird, who is not necessarily as professional, and here things get a bit more worrying. Aird is coming over from Valour, where he had more cards than assists, which isn’t unheard of for him, but the former Rangers prospect has now been released by a Scottish League Two side and Valour in the past 18 months. But he was briefly a Whitecap and was in the Canadian pool for a while in the middle of last decade, so Koch knows about him and here we are.

Both Aird and Porter are basically serviceable wide midfielders–Porter’s a touch more flexible–who will be defensively responsible and offensively abject. If that tells us anything about Koch’s tactics, are they any different from Paulus’ tactics? Or Colin Miller’s? Edmonton have too often settled for a 4-4-2 with defensive wingers and a big guy up front. It’s got them a woeful offensive record in multiple leagues for the better part of the past ten years, and they were at times almost unwatchable in 2020.1I just did a rewatch of the PEI tournament, mostly while working out. Edmonton’s games are genuinely hard to get through.

2021 is the club’s ten-year anniversary, not that you’d know it.2It’s nine seasons played, so given Covid-19 and such, we may see more hullabaloo for the 2022 season. I hope so, anyway. When fans eventually return in August, it would be great if the Eddies, for the first time in years, were an exciting, winning team.

Instead, a week before the season starts, key players are choosing to retire and, while there are some interesting additions, much hinges on Koch being able to bring the same workmanlike efficacy to Edmonton as he did Cincinnati.

It did work for him there, at least until MLS came along.

We have a rule here at The Merchant Sailor: every FC Edmonton post must include the team’s real mascot.
Key Arrivals

There are fewer arrivals than you might have thought, given the change in management this winter. That may be a by-product of Covid-19–certainly, Raul Tito has been unable to make it into the country again, and has now been released–but I suspect it’s also a by-product of the lack of contacts this club has outside of the local scene, an area where Newendorp has a lot of work ahead.

They did draft better this year, though Newendorp (Koch wasn’t hired yet) stayed with the tried-and-tested rather than unearthing anyone less known when drafting Tommy Gardner and Jackson Farmer. Farmer, who’s been bouncing around since the open trials, still hasn’t managed to wrangle a contract. Gardner, who does have some promise if he can stay healthy and motivated, has, and adds depth in midfield.

Hunter Gorskie is a big-ish add, too, and another with ample USL experience. Along with Didic, Mélé Temguia, and Ramon Soria, Edmonton have tremendous depth on the back-line, and whatever happens with their attack, they ought to be able to defend their way to some points. That worked okay in 2019, but I think the league’s level is higher now.

Koch salvaged Paris Gee, a little-known Canadian, from the St. Louis FC firesale. He can play fullback or in midfield, and more or less replaces former open trialist Son Yong-chan. (That we’re still talking about open trialists with Edmonton is, I might posit, part of the recruitment problem.3It was a fun marketing fling, and produced a surprising number of players who were helpful in bolstering out the rosters in the first year. A couple, like Kodai Iida and Emilio Estevez, went on to better things, and that’s great.)

The biggest and best addition, however, is Shamit Shome from CF Montreal. I’m surprised again, this time that Montreal let him walk. He will be a very, very good player in CanPL–exactly how he’ll be used is a mystery for later–but he’s the sort of young, Canadian piece Edmonton can build around for as long as he wants to be here.

There are a few intriguing forwards, too–Tomas Warschewski, Beto Avila, and attacking midfielder Tomas Giraldo–who I’ll get to below so we can get on with the departures.

Key Departures

A couple of the veteran guys are gone: Tomi Ameobi leaves with only four goals in 29 games for Edmonton in the CanPL era, which was nowhere near good enough. Kareem Moses, who had some run-ins with Jeff Paulus but always stuck around and did a job, has also moved on.

Gone, too, are a whole pile of underwhelming recruits from 2020 who did not do anything like a job. I pin a lot of Edmonton’s Island Games performance on these guys–on a young team, you need the newcomers to show up. Erik Zetterberg didn’t. Neither did Kéven Aleman. Hanson Boakai got a second chance and delivered more or less the same thing he always has: intriguing runs with little end product. This is a team that has been far, far too willing to give second and even third chances to any player from Edmonton. Even Shome is a former Eddie. It’s a noble touch, but far too many of those players haven’t worked out, weren’t likely to, and seemed to take playing in CanPL as a bit of a walk in the park.

A lot of local youth departed this winter, too. That does happen in football, but you hate to see a player like Chance Carter–a legit prospect in this league–choosing to retire mere days before the season to pursue opportunities that will, presumably, pay him more. This is a challenge for the league as a whole, not just Edmonton, but a club that prides itself on its academy is going to have to lead the way in finding solutions to it.

Key Players
Tomas Warschewski, advanced forward

This spot could–maybe should, given how the side relies on him–belong to Easton Ongaro. But through two seasons, we more or less know what Ongaro is. He’ll score goals, but he’s often hung out to dry up front with no support. It’s hard to over-state how little movement there was in that attack last year.

Warschewski is a German youth prospect who comes from a smaller club in Preussen Munster in the third flight, and as such flew under the radar a bit until the German U19 program called him up. He’s scored in the European U19 Championship (against England, so you know he’s got quality) and apparently drew interest from Bundesliga sides, though a move never materialized.

Part of the reason for that might be that his numbers with Munster were never knock-your-socks-off, which is what the top-flight clubs look for. He has scored in youth leagues and can play wide as well, but I really want to see him in a partnership with Ongaro where his mobility and physicality can provide support for the behemoth Canadian.

Ongaro’s a funny player. He’s 6’8″, so obviously a force in the air, but he’s also got soft feet and sometimes plays around big physical battles a bit–not so much avoiding them as playing less directly than you’d expect him to, and instead dropping off the line a fair bit, receiving the ball and distributing, almost like a #10. He needs someone to distribute to.

Koch often used Fanendo Adi this way at Cincinatti, as a kind of technical focal point in attack. Granted, Adi could be mercurial, but the bones of the idea are good, and Ongaro has the tools to pull those strings and the work ethic to do it consistently.

German players often develop a bit later, and Warschewski is another 23-year-old, league-mandated international looking to establish himself as a pro. If CanPL is going to give those players an opportunity ahead of Canadian players, I want to see them help make the Canadians around them better.

Shamit Shome, central midfielder

Everything in Edmonton this year hinges on Shome. He is the only creative player in this midfield now that Raul Tito is gone, and he is going to have to do the bulk of the dirty work in a team that probably isn’t going to have the ball a lot.

This suits him, and he suits how Alan Koch teams typically play. Shome is industrious–you can tell he came out of Edmonton’s academy–but is also, in my view, one of the best Canadian prospects when it comes to hitting a line-splitting pass.

The one challenge here is he’s not really a true attacking midfielder. Edmonton do not have that. Shome’s an #8, better in pockets and on the half-turn than, frankly, pretty much every midfielder in CanPL save maybe Kyle Bekker or Andre Rampersad (who is also very, very good at this, and a similar kind of player to Shome). Shome is up there with Ralph Priso and Liam Fraser, both of whom are (more or less) in MLS.

Shome could play his way back into that league (in which case Edmonton need to get a good fee out of it). He could also be the bedrock for FC Edmonton for years to come.

Tactics & Positional Depth

Particularly in Cincinnati, Koch specialized in getting a lot out of guys who, on paper, didn’t always look like that much. Andrew Wiedeman was a star for that team, remember.

They were even occasionally entertaining while doing it, albeit usually in a fast, direct way. I don’t think that’s a bad omen for a team in Edmonton, and if they can model things a bit on FC Cincinnati, maybe minus the endless rotation of bad Dutch managers,4Shoulda never fired Koch, guys. that would be great. I’d love to see a workmanlike, likeable Eddies group play a few games in Fort Mac, for instance.

 

That probably means a 4-4-2, with the strike partnership built around Ongaro as explained above. It could be Beto Avila or Tomas Warschewski or someone else; either way, it’s key.

Behind that, it’s a pretty defensive group. Before Tito’s visa problems, you could see a kind of unbalaned midfield with Porter as a defensive, pressing pivot and Tito as your creator off the left. The Peruvian’s departure means Shome is going to have to do a huge amount of work.

Koch may have to tweak things there to get a proper playmaker on the field at some point. Antony Caceres is an intriguing, academy-produced option there–he’s mostly a left-sided player, so you could pencil him in for Tito.

Jeannot Esua is not the kind of fullback who puts in a great cross, but his engine is unmatched and Edmonton are going to need him to provide that width all season long. They have to do better about giving him support, though: Esua’s decision-making has gotten a lot better over the past two years but his technical ability is below-average and he can’t be asked to attack the box one-on-one as often as he was in 2020.

On the left, it’ll probably be Paris Gee, who can also get forward, while Ramon Soria slides into midfield as a deep-lying distributor to allow Shome to get further forward and take risks. Both are solid options and could swap if the situation demands it, though at 32, Soria might be best sheltered from too much running given the schedule ahead.

Sharly Mabussi is getting a lot of press for a guy who’s coming in from the French fourth division. There were a bunch of open trialists from that level of league, and very few stuck. He did get some spot minutes as Stade Lavallois were getting relegated one year, but yeah, he’s a guy who has to prove he belongs in this league first.

There are enough pieces, particularly at centre-back, for Koch to play around with a back three if he wants, or potentially some sort of diamond in midfield, which we haven’t seen often in CanPL thus far.

 

This is still workmanlike, but all of those guys in midfield can cover ground, which you need to be able to do in a diamond. Gee, a converted midfielder, would be particularly interesting if he’s allowed to support possession further forward, and the extra defensive cover might ease Amer Didic’s workload and also allow some of the younger players–Gardner, Montreal loanee Tomas Giraldo, or even Marcus Velado-Tsegaye.

Velado-Tsegaye, who missed most of 2020 with injuries and most of 2019 with high school, still managed to score one of the goals of the tournament last year. He’s still raw, and he needs this season to be a big one where he can pile up some serious miles. I think he’ll benefit from the reps and if Koch is brave, he’ll start him on the left from day one and let his veteran defenders absorb any defensive mistakes the youngster makes.

Projection: 7th

This is very much a rebuild. But for the pandemic, there might have been some more signings, but the reality of the league right now means Edmonton will be running light at least for the first while. This should be an anniversary year for the club; instead it’s going to be a season where, once more, fans will have to content themselves to getting excited about young players.

There’s a certain beauty in that. It is in no way out of line with the club’s philosophy or the approach taken from day one ten years ago. More than any other club in the league, at least as yet, FC Edmonton’s entire existence is about funneling unnoticed local talent up the pipeline.

That is always going to exist in a precarious balance with winning. I don’t have any problem at all with an FC Edmonton that’s a bottom-of-the-table CanPL team that produces real prospects.

How long can that last, however, given the landscape in Canadian soccer? We can’t take this team and its academy for granted any more than we can take the league for granted; it’s easy to sit and tweet or blog about how Canadian soccer needs to be academy-based, providing equal opportunity accessibility to players for as a long as possible. It is harder to actually build and run that kind of set-up, let alone get average sports fans to come watch it. The lower levels of North American soccer, from Mexico to the US to Canada, are littered with ambitions and the ruins of same.

In Eric Newendorp and Alan Koch, the Fath brothers have two guys who understand these challenges, and have lived them. Neither’s record is spotless. You don’t get those at this level of soccer. It’s about taking that experience and building something larger. There’s the germination of a decent team here, far from grown, but not dead, either, even after ten years.

About Dylan Matthias 182 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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