FC Edmonton Facing Blunt Truth: ‘We Have To Improve’
It’s telling that the city of Edmonton was able to host around 50,000 fans for each of its national team matches at the Commonwealth Stadium, but its local Canadian Premier League side saw its attendance dip to just 564 for a season closer against the reigning champions.
“It’s been challenging, that’s the best way I can put it,” says Club President Eric Newendorp, “for lots of reasons. You can start with our on-field performance, which is way below Alan and I’s expectations.”
After enduring a winless Island Games campaign last year, FC Edmonton made the decision to part ways with head coach Jeff Paulus and bring in former Colorado Switchbacks head coach Alan Koch near the start of the season, with Newendorp himself arriving earlier from the FC Tulsa front office.
The first season under the duo proved to be a difficult one, with the Eddies only winning about one fifth of its games. While that’s actually a small step forward compared to the previous season, 78% of this season’s matches resulted in draws or losses, and that’s proving to be a tough sell for local spectators.
Facing an uncertain fanbase with a pivotal season ahead, change is once again on the menu: Newendorp expects that the FC Edmonton squad will look very different heading into the 2022 CPL season, with this offseason bringing even more changes than the one after Edmonton’s winless Island Games campaign.
Eric and head coach Alan Koch began their roster building discussions well prior to the end of the current season, and are now identifying which players to trigger options on, who to re-sign, who to bring in, and are making hard decisions on who to let go. No decisions were finalized ahead of the season’s end, following which longtime Eddies Alan Zebie and Connor James opted to retire early.
Whoever calls Clarke Stadium home next year, one thing is certain: The 2022 FC Edmonton squad needs to be more competitive. A lot more. “We have to improve,” states Newendorp, “there are lots of things you can think of about what factors into that, but the bottom line is that we need to find guys that can help us win matches.”
When Alan looked at the talent we had last year and some of the contracts that were in place, it ended up sort of being what it was and we kept who we kept. We’re going to have those same discussions now and we’ll make decisions. If it takes 23 new guys, it’ll take 23 new guys. If there’s a few guys we retain and it’s 5, 6, or 10, or whatever it’s going to be, the bottom line is that we’ve got to improve our product on the field and win more matches. That’s the number one goal.Eric Newendorp
The results-based business has proven to be a harsh one for many CPL athletes, with most of the clubs putting forth short-term contracts and relying on club options to maintain roster consistency in the early years. Roster shake ups for the likes of Valour, Halifax, and York United have proven successful in the past, so the precedent for FC Edmonton is certainly there.
For FC Edmonton – whose current roster even includes some faces from its NASL era – facing two campaigns in a row where the side was largely stuck to the bottom of the league table means that those difficult conversations will come aplenty. Newendorp is ready for them.
We’re going to have some hard discussions and make some hard decisions about them, but that is our job. That’s my job, that’s Alan’s job, and that is the nature of the business. The players know that. It’s a results-based industry, and our results are far from our standards. It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to do everything we can to improve, and if that means having completely new fresh faces in here, than it may be that way.Eric Newendorp
While Newendorp says he collaborates with Alan on the club roster, the final decision comes down to Koch. Newendorp assists with his own strong opinions, helping keep track who’s coming out of contract and identifying potential signings entering free agency, while also tracking speculative roster totals on spreadsheets to look at salary cap space and what kind of moves are even possible.
While Newendorp had also hoped to bring plenty of improvements to the matchday atmosphere at Clarke Stadium, the biggest factor – the fan influence – remained a big miss. While Eric was able to do a few things that he says helped improved the look of it, the 21-year-old stadium didn’t prove a draw for fans this season.
Clarke Stadium is Clarke Stadium, right? She is what she is. As long as that is our home, we’re going to embrace her with all her challenges and difficulties, and we’re going to love her, and we’ll try to improve on her as best we can for the experience of our fans as long as we’re there, whether that’s a year, two years, ten years, whatever.Eric Newendorp
With an estimated average matchday attendance of only 961 this year compared with 2,904 in 2019, it’s hard to tell what is from the unavoidable impact of COVID-19 compared to how many fans simply weren’t enticed by the venue or the product on the pitch. Losing two thirds of attendance will have surely rung alarm bells from Clarke Stadium all the way to CPL headquarters in Toronto.
With a mountain ahead of him, Newendorp has rolled up his sleeves, still working to obtain approval to continue stadium improvements that he’s had on the burner since he first arrived. Some of these will require further corporate partnership involvement, and he hopes that come opening day in April that fans will see clear and obvious improvements to the stadium atmosphere.
Of course, he’d also like to see FC Edmonton eventually secure its own home ground, parting ways with the multi-purpose stadium that has, in large, struggled to draw a crowd for the Eddies even on a good day.
I always say for the future, FC Edmonton needs its own facility. That’s no secret. That’s been talked about before. If I had more time, I would like to dedicate a quarter or more of it to trying to figure out a way for a future plan for a facility. In the meantime, as long as we’re at Clarke, we’ve gotta do what we can do make her the best stadium that we can for our fans when they come to our matches.Eric Newendorp
Newendorp has secured approval to do some as-yet-undisclosed stadium improvements, though fans won’t know what those are until closer to the 2022 Canadian Premier League season.
Eric hopes to see the club’s fourth CPL season start with a more normal playing cycle that begins in April, which leaves him and the front office a short window to fit in those improvements. “With the late season, it’s been challenging,” he says, “but we’ve made some positive steps in the right direction. However, we have still been far below my standards and expectations.”
We’ve got to fix what I call the core product which is our performance on the pitch, but there’s other challenges like selling tickets and other things that have been challenging. Like a lot of companies these days, we’re short-staffed and there’s a lot of moving parts. But, we’re going to look to build for the future and evaluate where we are, eliminate some bad and add more good.Eric Newendorp
The club has already opened its 2022 season ticket sales for the FC Edmonton faithful, but with the roster rebuild yet to get publicly underway and Clarke Stadium still – well, Clarke Stadium – it’s a tough ask for the sales team.
Beyond the box office difficulties and lackluster results on the pitch, the club also made the difficult choice to shutter its own academy around the time it brought in Alan Koch. The decision came after Newendorp and club owner Tom Fath reviewed the financial impact of the ongoing pandemic, the amount the Fath Group was putting in, and zeroed in on what the club’s overall balance sheet looked like. “There are a lot of nuances to this decision”, explains Newendorp.
Eric was quick to assure that player scouting is still a big line item in the club’s budget: while FC Edmonton no longer has a formal U-20 reserve academy squad, the club still hopes to seek out local talent and invite them to train with the first team where warranted. Right now the onus of individual player scouting is largely on Alan Koch, though his technical staff is ready to help, too.
It is still our commitment to locate, develop relationships with, and train the best talent out of Edmonton. We don’t have a formal U-20 reserve team academy, but we still operate what we call an academy by special invitation, special relationships with the guys in town we’ll bring in to winter and offseason training, and before preseason training camp, potentially signing a few guys.Eric Newendorp
As for whether the FC Edmonton Academy could come back, Newendorp suggests it might: “It depends on if the markets needs it, and if we feel like we’re in a better position to do so. That’s from resources like time, people, and money,” he says. “There are just other more important things as a club that we need focus on to get our health in order. We didn’t officially say we’re shutting down the FC Edmonton Academy, because we still feel we have an academy approach to what we do, we’re just not operating a select reserve team.”
The now-defunct reserve team system would see the club invest in 18-20 youth players that might result in 4-6 proving capable of breaking into the first team, says Newendorp, who states that right now it makes more fiscal sense to identify those high potential players through a more individual, cost-effective approach.
The move to shutter the academy also saved the club some finances in terms of staffing, too: last season saw assistant coach Sean Flemming operate as the assistant coach to the first team while also being the head coach of the reserve team. That dual-position is, in effect, eliminated by the removal of the academy.
The decision to shift away from fielding an academy side as a cost-saving measure brings the obvious question of how solid (or rocky, rather) the club’s finances are, which is something Newendorp wouldn’t comment on directly. He simply says the financial model of the CPL is leaner than what he’d seen from his days in the NASL and USL, with the salary cap and smaller travel requirements being the biggest difference-makers.
“It’s still a struggle,” he admits, “obviously nobody anticipated COVID. I think 2019 was a decent year, and then the pandemic just scuttled everything over the last two years. That’s not an excuse, everyone is dealing with that, but it’s going to take some time to dig out of that hole.”
By chance, Newendorp had been hired by the Eddies in March 2020, right when the world came to a stop due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadian Premier League Commissioner David Clanachan had promised fans that the league would still be standing at the end of it, and – thus far – that has rung true.
As dipping league-wide attendance shows, however, COVID-19 still has a firm impact on the gate-driven league overall, which has now existing longer within the pandemic than outside of it.
I would say that it’s still a challenge, we’re not in the financial place that we want to be. Part of my role when I talk about the health of the club is to close the gap between the money going out and the money coming in. It’s always part of an adventure or an operation – as most pro teams are that I have been involved with, and I would daresay most of the teams in the CPL – is that there just isn’t revenue that is overtaking what your outgoing expenses are.Eric Newendorp
While Newendorp says not every owner runs a team just to turn a tidy profit – though they sure would like to – it’s difficult for a club to do so even in non-pandemic circumstances. “It has always been tough to do that, it got easier with the CPL structure, and then COVID hit. We’re not in the financial position we want to be in, but I don’t think any club is.”
Last week saw Thomas Nef state on the Northern Futbol Podcast that FC Edmonton was essentially being league-run in lieu of active ownership, with the Edmonton Oilers having had a takeover bid for the club rejected by the CPL head office. While rumours of Oilers interest predate the CPL’s first kick, Newendorp dismissed Nef’s statement as inaccurate.
The pandemic also saw the club shift its international recruitment strategy closer to home, with FC Edmonton leaning heavily on Koch and Newendorp’s USL experience to sign Paris Gee and Hunter Gorskie while securing loan signings Roberto Avila and Azriel Gonzalez, the latter of whom the club is seeking ways to have a future with.
The club’s USL reinforcements have looked to be astute additions, and by avoiding South American, African, or Asian internationals, the club didn’t run into the same travel visa issues that plagued some of the other CPL sides due to COVID-19’s impact on international travel. The strong focus on our southern neighbours seems set to continue into 2022.
There may be talent out there we want to bring, but we can’t get guaranties because of the processing time where even if we offer a contract, will we get a visa clearance by the time training starts which will be in February, which is a quick turnaround.Eric Newendorp
Newendorp suggests that the club will also focus more on a coast-to-coast approach for its domestic roster recruitment, uncovering ‘every bush and every rock’ to find the best players that it can. “I’m not saying we’ve leaned too much towards local players,” he urges, “but maybe we have, and that’s what we need to look at.”
It’s great story if you have a bunch of players on your team that are from Edmonton if you’re winning. It doesn’t help us at the box office to have a bunch of core guys from Edmonton. I want to be able to stay committed to developing talent from Edmonton and sign talent from Edmonton who will help us win matches. If they do not, it doesn’t work.Eric Newendorp
When Eric had first arrived from Oklahoma, he boldly stated that the club’s ambition was to secure one North Star Shield within the next five years. Having gone through the trenches and experienced a tough introductory year to the CPL, he says that number still hasn’t changed:
As long as we’re here, as long as I’m around, that’s still the goal: get one championship in the next five years. That’s not going to happen unless we improve next year, because clearly we didn’t improve enough this year. Next year is a pivotal year for us. Not just for me personally, forget about me, but for this team. If we don’t show real improvement, than that makes the pressure to have that timeline a lot tougher. Five years is practical. Three years less so.Eric Newendorp
With Newendorp’s own contract set to expire at the end of next year and Koch’s running an extra year after that, the duo knows that pressure will be mounting to see the side shift significantly more in the right direction.
“We’ve got to make improvements and show marked improvements, or there’s a possibility that the ownership group will not retain us,” he admits, “it’s a results-based business, and we knew that going it.”
I wanted to go from worst-to-first this year. There is no reason why we shouldn’t talk about trying to win a championship now. It hasn’t worked out that way for a variety of reasons. Every year we go into a season, we talk about let’s win now, let’s compete for a championship now. In a realistic build, a couple of people, it takes a couple of cycles to get the players and cycle you want to build. That’s the practicality of it. I think a five year timeline is an absolutely practical goal, and we talk about it all the time.Eric Newendorp
With Newendorp himself describing the 2022 CPL season as a pivotal point for what has clearly become a struggling CPL side, the club is waging a battle on two fronts: the first is its on-the-pitch performance, and the second is fan engagement. These two mutually beneficial performance markers will go a huge way in determining whether the CPL’s most storied club can kickstart a new chapter, or if next year’s pages will be a painful read.
“We will keep pluggin’,” he says, “that’s what you’ve got to do. I just can’t live with myself if I stop. Given whatever our circumstances are, that’s fine, but I’m going to keep trying. We’re going to keep trying.”