Reflections From Alan Koch, FC Edmonton’s Final Head Coach
FC Edmonton’s failed struggle for survival has been a well-documented affair. The proverbial ship’s final voyage was guided by Alan Koch, a veteran head coach who was handed an empty deck of cards and still fought hand, tooth, and nail right to the bitter end.
The curtains finally came down on FC Edmonton yesterday, but the closure was preceded by a year-long palpable feeling of dread from all around the club regarding its future. There would be no Ryan Reynolds swooping in a la Welcome to Wrexham to save the team, with no replacement owner willing to take on an Eddies side with historically poor attendance and a tough-sell of a facility like Clarke Stadium.
The death throes of the beleaguered sports team have been open and clear for all to see ever since club owner Tom Fath ran out funding for the side last year, with owners of the league’s other seven clubs having to step in to fund player and staff salaries while the league took over operations of the club.
With the club still remaining ownerless after two seasons in unideal conditions – and a lot of creative roster building required for a minimum budget side bleeding money – the league finally declared FC Edmonton dead on November 21, 2022, almost exactly five years after the NASL had done the same.
I spoke with FC Edmonton’s fifth and final head coach, Alan Koch, who remained steadfast in his duty to guide the club through two seasons that were far from what he was promised when he took on the job. Back then, he was promised a budget, an academy, and an active owner to work with – but none of that came to fruition. In fact, it all went away quickly.
Throughout it all, Koch remained one of the few constants in an ever-rotating roster of young players, support staff, and an increasingly grim scenario for the club.
“It’s the only job where I haven’t had success from a wins or losses perspective, and that in itself is disappointing, but I’m grateful, so grateful for this opportunity ” reflects Koch. “It’s frustrating, what has transpired, but I’ve learned a lot. I feel like I’ve grown a lot. I feel like I’m a much, much better coach and a much, much better person today for the experience that I’ve gone through with this club for the last two years.”
Koch faced two difficult seasons during his tenure in Edmonton, with his 2021 roster being whittled down to just two or so academy players ahead of a final year that saw the team comprised mostly of loaned talent. The club’s academy was shut down not long after his arrival, and even his coaching staff rotated frequently as he led a team comprised of young men and second-chance professionals into an unfavourable schedule.
Koch, ever the optimist, reflected on the bright side in the opportunities that this opened up.
“I think everybody that was on our staff this year was in their first year in the professional game, so it was a very pedagogical year for everybody. There was a lot of education that had to happen. I felt, to be quite frank, that every day was a teaching moment to share and not just help our players, but also help our coaches. Everybody came with the right mindset,” he reflected.
Koch adjusted this mindset of positivity as the hits kept coming, embracing every hurdle as a challenge. It wasn’t his first rodeo, though FC Edmonton’s two years on a shoestring budget presented the veteran coach with challenges he has yet to see anywhere else. Between leading a young group of players and coaches, significant financial constraints, and even managing relationships with the community, Koch did everything asked of him – and more – with gusto.
“I tried to turn something that was frustrating and disappointing into a positive experience. I feel so grateful for that community, and I even feel grateful for the challenges that presented themselves because it allowed myself and others to grow and learn as much as we could from that segment of the journey,” he adds.
Heading into 2022 was his biggest challenge yet: by the time the calendars flipped to January, the team had almost nothing, and were starting the roster-building process months after the other teams. Koch describes it as the most challenging offseason he’s ever had, and he’s seen quite a few. With a paltry budget and no word on a new owner swooping in to improve things, he set to work crafting a creative roster build with the little resources he had, about one-third of the budget of other teams whilst it was league-run.
“It was an opportunity for us to go get players and young coaches that maybe wouldn’t have had those opportunities, and that was really just driven by the budget structure that was in place. But we rode that wave, and we had some amazing moments. One of my players talked to me before the final, and reminded me that we’ve beaten Ottawa and took points off Forge, and those were the best two teams in the league. We were not set up for success whatsoever, and we did have some successful moments – so we do take satisfaction from that, and what we were able to do with the group during the course of a very challenging season.”
Koch had taken to calling FC Edmonton ‘FC Opportunity’ for the chances it gave young professionals in the game, and fittingly the side’s final minutes saw professional debuts handed to York United loanee Felix N’sa and Edmonton’s own Joseph Holliday, a product of the club’s academy.
“We should be incredibly proud of the number of plays that came from the academy. When I took the job I fully anticipated there would still be an academy, and when I reflect now, I found out a few weeks after I got the job that there was not going to be. So, that certainly wasn’t as big a red flag then as it looks now, but that is definitely one of the challenges that presented itself during the course of the journey.”
Through what we now know was FC Edmonton’s final campaign, Koch never asked for too much news on the ownership front, thinking that it wasn’t his place: he put his nose to the grindstone and did his job, leading the club through two straight seasons of blood and thunder. When he did ask at the end of the season, there was no information waiting for him. The buyer who had expressed the most interest, unfortunately, was several million dollars removed from the league’s evaluation of the team.
The league, evidently, would preferred to let the club fold, remove The Fath Group from the equation, and sell the Edmonton geography at a new franchise rate to an owner who was ready to invest in something new, rather than try to fix a beast that had already folded before.
This Monday morning he got a call from Club President Jeff Harrop for a video call later in the day. There, he finally got the news he had long suspected: FC Edmonton was no more. The public announcement was rolled out just minutes later, confirming the end of FC Edmonton in the midst of a World Cup news cycle.
Thus spelled the end for FC Edmonton, who’s spattering of athletes not in on loan had expiring contracts, who’s coaching staff (including Koch) were on expired deals, and who’s front office staff – a mixture of mostly part-time employees with a full-time employees – were on staggered, expiring deals too. Many had already left.
While the league said earlier this month that a decision on FC Edmonton would be made shortly, the club was already in the midst of winding down behind the scenes, and finally shuddered its last breath on November 21, 2022.
FC Edmonton’s final match took place on October 8, 2022, with a 3-1 over Valour FC.
It was one of the brightest moments from a dark two years and a difficult Canadian Premier League era, the second of two failed ventures the club has participated in, on the back of two years where the team had finished second-last and last, respectively. When asked to describe his emotions when the club’s long, winding road of a campaign finally came to a close at home last month, Koch had just one word: Euphoric.
“It was bizarre, but it was a euphoric feeling, because we’d got to the end,” says the head coach, who clarified that he meant the end of the season rather than the club as a whole, which still had an uncertain future at the time. “Just to finish everything that we’ve been fighting through the whole season, not just the coaches but the players, staff, and the supporters, and to really reward everybody with a positive performance and three points, it was truly a euphoric feeling.”
“Finishing at the bottom of the table is not something anybody enjoys or takes pride in, but we did feel a sense of pride with what we’d accomplished just for the players themselves, just to put in a good performance like that, and leave the field with such a positive feeling that they could share with the supporters. It was just honestly a beautiful way to finish after a very, very challenging year for everybody.”
Koch has had every emotion one can imagine throughout the course of the season. There’s been frustration and there’s been disappointment aplenty, but there’s also been gratitude and happiness for some of the moments he shared with what he describes as a special group, too.
“Winning a game or getting a point on the road with this group of players was some of the most beautiful moments I’ve shared at the end of games,” he reflects. “I just tried to enjoy and savor every moment, even though there’s a lot of sadness to this.”
In a twinge of irony, Koch’s previous coaching roles at Colorado Swings Switchbacks and FC Cincinnati saw him don a hard hat and celebrate those respective sides building for the future, with new stadiums at both and a beautiful training ground for a then-MLS-bound Cincinnati. In Edmonton, an aging Clarke Stadium remained an unsolvable problem through multiple club presidents and, unfortunately, the club’s entire CPL era.
“Clarke as it stands right now is definitely in need of some some upgrades,” agrees Koch. “There needs to be a lot of love care and resources put into it. It’s it is a nice place to play, and I’ve enjoyed it. I have some very positive views from the stadium. But if the game has continues to go forward in the right direction in this country, a stadium like that is definitely needs some TLC.”
CPL Commissioner Mark Noonan made it clear that he wants a new franchise in Edmonton, but also that Clarke Stadium had objectively failed as a stadium solution. He’s keen to work with the city regarding the CPL’s return to the geographic region in an appropriate facility, suggesting Clarke Stadium won’t be part of any future professional soccer venture in the city. That will take time, and the league has already confirmed that the 2023 season will take place without a CPL side in Edmonton while new buyers evaluate the possibilities there.
Noonan had also assuaged fears about the health of the league, stating that what happened in FC Edmonton was a one-off situation. The league will remain at eight teams thanks to the timely arrival of Vancouver FC, and we’ve confirmed that Kelowna was awarded rights in addition to the already-unveiled Saskatoon and Windsor ventures, too.
For Koch, FC Edmonton was certainly a standout issue for a business in its early days.
“The CPL is a startup business. With every startup business, you’re always going to have teething problems. Unfortunately, I think FC Edmonton is the biggest teething problem of the CPL, because the growth of the league is there for everybody to see, the positives are there for everyone to see – but like any sort of business, you’re gonna have challenges, and I think what has evolved at FC Edmonton is probably the biggest challenge that the CPL was had to go through in its short existence. You will go through these ups and downs as you try to create something special.”
With Koch’s contract having already expired before the club’s fate became official, he’d already started the process of reaching out for a new opportunity of his own – one which might see him given the resources one needs to succeed. Still, what he’d accomplished with the deck of cards he was given, and the fact that he stayed to steer the ship until the bitter end, say a lot about his character.
He has a parting word for the Edmontonians he’s stood shoulder-to-shoulder with over the last two seasons, too.
“My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Edmonton. We met some great people, and discovered a city with a lot of soul. There’s a lot of genuine people there. I have a lot of respect and love for the soccer community. It’s a city that surprised me in many respects – BC is our home, and BC is on our license plates. It says beautiful British Columbia, but we were able to go see some beautiful places in Alberta, and meet some beautiful people. I’ve got nothing but appreciation for the people that we got to meet and got to interact with in Edmonton.”