Survival Mode: A Rallying Call For FC Edmonton
None of the players shown in the above photograph still play for Edmonton. In fact, there are many who thought the club itself wouldn’t be standing today – but here we are.
The city’s only professional football club is going into its twelfth season, and fourth in the Canadian Premier League. It’s a moment that almost didn’t come after team owner Tom Fath ran out of funding midway through 2021, with the CPL – Canada’s domestic professional league – taking the operational reigns as other club owners funded player salaries while a new buyer was sought out.
Fath’s successor has yet to be found, leaving the the Eddies stuck up against it as they enter a new season with a minimum budget roster build comprised of twists, turns, and the seemingly insurmountable task of putting together a team that will still make its hometown proud.
The club kept just two of its players from its previous season, which is actually more than the number of coaching staff it was able to retain. With the next season less than a month away, only head coach Alan Koch remains ahead of an against-the-odds campaign.
“It’s a difficult challenge, to be quite frank, and maybe the most difficult challenge of my twenty-two year coaching career,” says the veteran gaffer, “but it also might simultaneously be the most exciting challenge, too.”
Both sides of the coin ring true. Reflecting on how the club got here and the challenges yet to come, Koch wasn’t afraid to shy away from the truth in a recent talk with Northern Tribune. Here’s a look from the perspective of a key architect in the club’s survival – though regardless of what comes on the pitch, this is a team that needs the Edmonton community to rally around it if it wants to see brighter pastures.
To be clear, FC Edmonton has not had a good time in the Canadian Premier League: the club had a mixed start in the inaugural 2019 season that gave way to a winless campaign in the shortened, pandemic-impacted follow-up. That’s when Koch came in from Colorado and put the building blocks in place for a long-term rebuild – one that got absolutely nixed this offseason.
“How things transpired, I never experienced,” he reflects, “and to be quite honest, I don’t wish this on any professional coach, because I came here excited with a vision and to be quite frank, under very challenging circumstances in 2021 we took a team from one point to 28 points, and we missed the playoffs by eight points.”
The Eddies were the second team in a league of eight to get eliminated from playoffs last year. There were some positive moments, but the much-transformed side was still playing catchup to other CPL teams who had retained the bulk of their rosters year-over-year. Koch had a lot of fresh faces to account for, but instead of having added familiarity with them this year he was forced to start all over again – and with less tools, budget, and options this time around.
“I thought it was more going to be a ‘survive transition’ first year, and then hopefully thrive in the second year…but we are definitely still in survival mode here. I’ve never been shy to rise up to challenges. We will continue on this journey. New players, new staff, and new opportunity, though we are essentially starting all over again.”
The league granted FC Edmonton a loan rule exception which allows the team to surpass the maximum number of loans they would otherwise be able to take in. The Eddies have already added three players from York United and one from Toronto FC, but more are coming. A lot more.
“We’re essentially going to be a few players who have signed with us, and then the bulk of our roster will be loans either intra-league or from other leagues,” said Koch, “the powers that be are being incredibly creative to help with the rest of the build.”
Given that the club’s player and coaching salaries are being paid for by other teams, this makes sense on an intra-league level: if another club’s owner is footing the bill, why not send a player of their own on loan and potentially get something out of the deal if they impress?
Loans from other leagues are a solid bet for parent clubs to give young prospects some top flight game time. Toronto FC’s Luke Singh is an interesting pickup, and if the Eddies can secure similar acquisitions there might be a few highlight-worthy youngsters – though other teams have already nabbed promising MLS youngsters like Jonathan Sirois or Kamron Habibullah.
The league has certainly looked for a creative solution to a difficult problem, and a bevy of intra-league moves is quite an idea – a very true embodiment of the league’s ‘we are many, we are one’ motto, even if it’s not how anyone pictured it.
Many of the players who recently trialed with FC Edmonton were quite young, though Koch describes these athletes as a complete mix of players from all walks of the game: some come from MLS academies, some are university athletes, and even more came from various men’s leagues from all around the country.
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“I’ve always been like this in my coaching journey: you never just narrow yourself down and look at one type of player from one location,” he said. “You have to have a very open mind because you never ever know where you’re going to find the next best player.”
While it’s never a good thing to need so many roster spots filled, one positive that Koch takes away from the trial period is that it allowed him to get to know several trialists on a personal level, seeing what they’re good at and what needs work both on and off the pitch before making his roster decisions.
Still, the club was barely scraping together eleven bodies for scrimmages a week ago. With the trialist period now over and signings now being finalized, it’ll be interesting to see who gets recruited for a season best described as a ‘trial by fire’. In sporting history, it’s certainly up there as one of the most unique ones to watch.
“We’re a work in progress, but I think this is a team and club that people can get behind because we are going to be the underdogs – and who in sports doesn’t like an underdog? This is a tough story, but let’s turn a tough story into a positive one.”
It’s a good thing that Koch enjoys working with young players, something that he’s shown throughout a twenty-two year career which has seen him coach both in the university game and with the Whitecaps FC 2.
The league requires every CPL team to reach a minimum threshold of minutes given to domestic U-21 talent, and that’s perhaps the only aspect where FC Edmonton need not worry: this will be a young, energetic team. He expects to help turn a group of young talent grow into more hardened athletes this season.
Everybody that’s going to come here is definitely not the finished article. I feel safe to say that every player that plays for FC Edmonton this year will not have peaked, and as we played they will have the potential to get better. It’s exciting for myself as a coach, but I think that it should be exciting for supporters of FC Edmonton too: the people that pay their hard earned money to come watch us play will see players grow literally in front of their eyes, that will get better every single week. We will not have a player who is older or over the hill, we will have young, incredibly motivated players, and hopefully they’ll see growth in front of their own eyes.Alan Koch
The team plans to utilize developmental contracts – short-term deals for young domestic athletes which don’t count against the roster maximum of 23 – with Koch stating that the club has already identified several good U-18 players in the community. Some have trained with the club already, whilst others were part of training sessions last season.
“We’ll be very, very excited to include them and integrate them into our group as much as possible,” said Koch, “I enjoy working with young players, and my careers shows that. In challenging situations or negative situations, you find the positive byproducts. The positive byproduct is that this is going to give some young Canadian players an opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t get before.”
The Right Man For The Job
Let’s face it: FC Edmonton are up against it, and it’s not an easy position for any staff involved. There are plenty of hypothetical positives, but the reality is that those attached to the club are expecting a tremendously difficult campaign.
When FC Edmonton’s ownership troubles began last season, it caused a lot of damage: the club didn’t just lose out on players it had hoped to retain, but it lost out on staff too. It would have been understandable if Koch counted himself among them.
“To be brutally honest, I thought of running for about five seconds… but it was for five seconds, because that’s that’s not my nature. I’m a fighter. I believe in this project, and I believe in professional soccer in the city of Edmonton. I think we have so much untapped potential on the field, off the field, and in the community here. That’s why I stayed to give this club a fighting chance.”
Alan Koch is the only coach to stay on from last season, and he’s now surrounding himself with new faces which include former Oilers executive Jeff Harrop. His new coaching staff has yet to be finalized, though we know Shervin Hajami will be the manager of team operations. The rest of the technical staff – including his assistants – will be revealed soon.
Those who signed on face a daunting mountain of endless tasks and barriers, but that isn’t slowing down Koch’s resolve. When FC Edmonton recruited him last season, it looked an astute pickup. In the current context, it’s a miracle that he stayed. Many in his shoes wouldn’t.
There are no such things as quiet days, or quiet moments. We are grinding before most people awaken to well after people go to sleep. To be honest, I’m a proud Canadian: I came back to Canada to be part of this league and I’m proud to be part of this league. I will do whatever it takes to help the city be successful. And if I have to manage probably the most challenging franchise in this league’s short history, I will gladly do it because we can all see how far the game has come – but we haven’t arrived yet. We still have a long, long way to go, and it takes people willing to commit to the cause, and sometimes be incredibly selfless. This is bigger than any individual. This is about helping Canadian soccer go as far as it possibly can go.Alan Koch
For Koch, his choice to stay stems from a sense of duty. He’s fulfilling a contract he didn’t have to because he’s looking at the bigger picture – but even after all he’s put in already, the hard work is far from over.
Into The Breach
Still, there isn’t a lot of time before the season kicks off. Even when the team does finalize its underdog roster, it will be put up against sides who have years of continuity, larger salary budgets, and more experienced athletes to work with. In short, a betting man would be placing his stakes against the Eddies.
Koch doesn’t shy away from the truth: the club will not be prepared for day one. They will step into the breach, get burnt, and power through it. He aims to see them come out stronger, and pick up the positives when they can.
“They’re going to fail at times. Our team will fail at times this year, one hundred percent. But we’re going to live, we’re going to learn, and we’re going to grow from it.”
FC Edmonton has completed its trial period, though much of its roster is still being finalized. The team recently battled to a 3-3 draw against the FC Tigers Vancouver, and will remain in the city as it faces several university teams over the next few weeks. It’d be ideal if the team could travel and get a ‘proper preseason’ under its belt, but those aren’t the cards in which Koch was dealt.
While only two former FC Edmonton athletes re-signed from the 2021 CPL season and a handful of second-chance CPL athletes have officially signed with the team, a few other former Eddies have been spotted training with them. Shamit Shome and Joseph Holliday appeared in photographs, though unless the former is coming in on loan it is unlikely he’d arrive as a minimum salary athlete.
The club is expected to name several trialist signings ahead of its upcoming friendly matches. Koch liked plenty of what he saw from the closed-door trials, which allowed him a good look at some of the faces he’ll be spending the upcoming season with. He likes the hunger he saw.
“With this challenge, the opportunity that presented itself is we were able to essentially open our doors to a lot of people that wanted to invest in their own opportunity and come showcase themselves and show what they can do. I am personally incredibly grateful to all of the players that came in, you could see they were hungry, they’re willing to commit and made it quite difficult for us because we had to make some very quick, expeditious decisions – and they haven’t been easy.”
The Bright Side
With all that has gone already and with such an uncertain future, it’s easy to go beyond pragmatic and dip into pessimism regarding the Alberta-based side. Koch offers a different perspective: these are tough times for FC Edmonton, but the fact that the club itself is still standing is worthy of celebration.
“We have eleven professional soccer clubs in Canada, and the biggest positive is we didn’t lose one of them. A lot of credit has to go to the league and the other owners for their willingness to step up and help this club survive, because it’d be incredibly sad to lose a club when we only heave eleven. It is a positive that a lot of people put a lot of good work to, to try help this club survive, but I do feel incredibly optimistic about the future. I think as much as it is a challenge right now, I think there are better days ahead for the club and for professional football in the city.”
Make no mistake, it would have been cheaper for both the league and its club owners to allow FC Edmonton to fold and sell its geographic rights at a new rate later on. With FC Edmonton being the most storied club in the league – predating it by several years – it would have been a great shame. Seeing other clubs step in to help the Eddies in their time of need is something rarely seen in both business and sports, and we’re lucky they did.
To Be Continued
In less than a month, countless nights of lost sleep and an innumerable and plenty of blood, sweat, and tears will see FC Edmonton kick off a campaign that has all the odds stacked against it. Koch is hoping to see sporting fans in the city rally to the cause. If all goes well, the club hopes to begin a new, brighter chapter under new ownership soon.
“I think anybody that appreciates sports, and to be honest, appreciates life can appreciate this club, hanging on and trying to rise. I think it is an incredibly beautiful story. It’s a tough story, but it’s a beautiful story. The potential for amazing things exists. We have to be very realistic about who we are, but we have to have colossal dreams,” he says adamantly.
Koch knows the young-leaning roster will go through some tough times, but he hopes there’ll be some incredibly positive moments, too. If all goes to plan, he’ll assemble the best players that he can with what he has – a never-say-die group that fits the DNA of Edmonton.
“I was asked recently, what are your expectations?”, he reflects, “and there were zero expectations. When you’ve gone through so many tough challenges and when you start so far behind all of your competitors, what expectations can you have other than go out and give it everything you can, put your head down, work incredibly hard, and walk off the pitch every single day with your head held high?”
That’s exactly what they’re going to do. Whether the city rallies around these underdogs remains to be seen. Attendance has been low before, and quite frankly so has local coverage. There’s a lot of reasons to it – but nobody who has kept watching FC Edmonton march onwards can doubt Koch’s dedication to the cause.
The battle is far from over: FC Edmonton is still fighting to survive. They’ve got quite a head coach leading the effort, though he’s a humble man who will want all the focus on his young-leaning team instead. That’s an Edmontonian for you.