The provincial capital city of Alberta, Canada, has developed over the years from its founding in 1795 as a major trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to the amalgamation and absorption of several neighbouring towns and districts, to its current form as a national and international hub for business, transport, retail and entertainment. Its location on the glacier-fed North Saskatchewan River, which leads eventually to Hudson Bay, was deemed ideal by HBC’s English explorer Anthony Henday. Then there are the festivals, their eclectic musical presentations, and the magnificent venues across the city, not least the West Edmonton Mall, once the largest and still today one of the most visited shopping centres in the world. Appropriately, the mall is situated near Highway 216, otherwise known as Anthony Henday Drive after the city’s first major trader.
On top of all that, let us not forget of course, sport.
For decades Edmonton has been synonymous with ice hockey and specifically the Edmonton Oilers’ incredible success in the National Hockey League (NHL) driven by, amongst others, ‘The Great One’, Wayne Gretzky – considered by many to be the greatest ice hockey player of all time. While the Oilers will undoubtedly remain at the heart of sporting focus for Edmontonians, and other sports have continued to grow in the city such as basketball and Canadian Football, over the last few years soccer has been slowly closing the gap.
In 2019, the Canadian Premier League (CPL) debuted and while a host of clubs were formed across the vast nation of Canada, Edmonton was primed and ready. Early in 2010 a franchise was founded by brothers Tom and Dave Fath for participation in the North American Soccer League (NASL). By 2012, the club had started a youth academy and a year later they launched a female version too. Unfortunately, the league folded in 2017 but that did not stop FC Edmonton, affectionately known as The Eddies. The club, just like the city, moved with the times and evolved itself. They ceased professional operations but cleverly kept their academies open and producing fresh young talent for the future, whatever that would ultimately materialise as.
Heart of Football spoke to Edmonton based author and journalist, Steven Sandor, about the club and their evolution over their first decade. I asked Steve what differences he had seen from the early days to the current CPL era.
“Obviously, the NASL model was unsustainable but the teams in the NASL were far more independent that they are in CPL. With a very tight salary cap, teams in CPL have similar resources when it comes to bringing in players where in NASL you had competition like Minnesota Utd, New York Cosmos and Miami FC who at times were spending at levels comparable to MLS (Major League Soccer) teams. Each team was responsible for its own media and broadcast set-ups and that’s not how CPL operates.”
“The CPL level of play as been surprisingly good and FC Edmonton frankly have not kept pace with the likes of Cavalry and Forge through the first couple of seasons. Still, it needs to be said that the level of play isn’t as high as it was in the NASL heyday, when you had players like Marcos Senna, Raul or Joe Cole in the league.”
“FCE is not doing well on-field now in a revised league with a revised salary cap but all things being equal, say the 2014 or 2015 edition of FC Edmonton would win the CPL by a country mile.”
The hierarchy, as well as the players and supporters of the club will surely be aiming to recreate that form of a few years ago and reinvent themselves yet again to push on for success in the coming seasons.
The academies will help immensely with that, and have already produced some notable talent since its inception. Steve explained, “FC Edmonton have the only true academy in the league, though Cavalry do develop players through their Foothills FC subsidiary side. The league would prefer that teams not spend on academies and instead turn to the division-3 leagues (the CPL owns League 1 Ontario) which, in turn, develop Canadian professional players. As this model tends to centre on Quebec and Ontario, it’s not as easy for clubs two or three time zones away to be invested into this system.”
“The academy teams have done very well at the Milk Cup and players like Shamit Shome (Edmonton born Montreal Impact player) have moved onto greener pastures. The Academy has also fared well in previous friendly competitions that have included academies of MLS sides. But the issue is that the Vancouver Whitecaps are also very aggressive in scouting Edmonton players and some of the best prospects – including Alphonso Davies – end up choosing to head west to Vancouver. But players like Marcus Velado-Tsegaye and Prince Amanda have had some positive appearances for FC Edmonton’s senior squad in the CPL.”
The Club Philosophy on their website reinforces this commitment. “As much as the Fath brothers have taken pride in stewarding a professional soccer club in their hometown, watching young Edmontonians evolving from teenage hopefuls into mature pros is at the core of the club’s DNA. And because there have been so many good prospects and professionals coming out of the Alberta capital, having young local players on the roster will be a priority for FCE. With a history of champions, the city also demands winners, entertainment and honesty from their teams. The FCE Academy has set a high standard, and players from the area have always been difficult opponents. Supporters can expect nothing less from their CPL club.”
The accomplishments of Alphonso Davies speak for themselves. From leaving Africa as a refugee and settling in Canada to winning the Bundesliga and UEFA Champion’s League with German giants Bayern Munich is a story of Hollywood-level drama and emotion. Davies has emerged as one of the brightest talents in world football and a genuine source of pride for Canadian soccer fans, especially in Edmonton where he first learned his craft.
It is a double edged sword, however, as although the footballing world is talking about Alphonso and he has become an inspiration to so many Canadians, nobody is mentioning FC Edmonton, and sadly that means that the club which was integral to his development and indeed Canadian soccer are in danger of being completely overshadowed by his brilliance. In any event, at only 19 years old, he is already a regular starter for the Canadian national team and has set himself up for an incredible career as possibly the best Canadian footballer ever – could he equal or even surpass the legendary status of Wayne Gretzky?
But in a city famous for and so passionate about its Oilers, realistically how much of a following does soccer have? Steve had an interesting take on the sport’s position.
“To be honest, selling soccer in Edmonton continues to be a struggle. In 2020, I’d argue that the Stingers of the Canadian Elite Basketball League may have passed them in popularity, as that team won the Canadian championship and now has a larger media profile. Basketball in Edmonton has been skyrocketing in popularity; it’s also by far the fastest growing youth sport, while registrations in soccer and hockey are shrinking. In terms of pecking order, FC Edmonton is number four when it comes to pro sports teams in Edmonton.”
“The team hasn’t had a true general manager – in terms of business operations – for months and there has been a vacuum. Poor results haven’t helped. To be honest, crowds in 2019 for CanPL games never reached the level that FCE had for NASL. Like many, I thought that having local rivalries would boost interest – derbies against teams from Calgary and Winnipeg. But Canadians have a funny way of wanting to be judged by how Americans perceive us. It’s a symptom of being a neighbour to the world’s biggest media power. So we don’t see a Canadian rivalry like we see ‘New York Cosmos are coming to town!’ That has to change.”
“If Edmonton decides to pull out of contention as a World Cup 2026 host city – which is a very real possibility – then soccer takes another hit too.”
The 2026 edition of the FIFA World Cup is set to be held across the three largest countries of North America – Mexico, the United States and Canada. Sixteen cities are scheduled to host games in the tournament and currently the three allocated Canadian cities will be Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton. Such an event can shine a huge spotlight on a country and its footballing scene and with a league like the CPL in its infancy, that spotlight needs to be bright. With worldwide intrigue and attention, a boost in confidence and investment can often follow. Make no mistake about it, though – the Canadian Premier League intends to stick around for the long term, as Steve explained to us:
“The owners needed to make 10-year commitments; there is a deal with MediaPro for a decade’s worth of broadcasts and the current crop of owners have deeper pockets than previous soccer owners in Canada, many of whom bailed before even one season when they realised how much money was required to keep a team afloat. I know FCE’s owner has often said to me that you need to imagine how much money you could lose on a team, then multiply it by 10!”
So, it really is an investment for the long haul, but clearly one each team and the league itself are willing to make. For FC Edmonton, specifically, their owners have already been committed to the cause for a decade and are unwavering in their vision for the club’s future.
Times have been tough for Edmonton during the CPL era. Although the team began well in the inaugural season – they finished third in the Spring Season, perhaps relying on their experience over their fellow teams – the Fall Season saw them drop down to sixth of seven teams. Whilst that meant they were exactly mid-table in the overall table, the signs of demise were there and the dangers of travelling against the flow of the other improving teams was a real possibility.
The 2020 Island Games have not done anything to give fans hope of a bright future either as the club finished bottom of the pile – or eighth as it’s perhaps more preferably known – even behind debutants Atlético Ottawa, and not registering a single win. Their only point gained in fact was a draw against the new Ottawa team.
We asked Steve if there was any real hope of success for Edmonton as the league continues to grow.
“As the one team in CanPL that existed before the league was formed, there was an expectation that this team would be near the top of the table. It hasn’t turned out that way. Arguably because the team hasn’t lived up to high expectations, they now may have more to do than any other other team in CanPL in terms of winning back fans’ confidence. With hockey being so dominant here, a team needs to be very successful in order not to be back-page news. It’s absolutely vital for FCE to get things right in 2021.”
It cannot have been easy to witness the team’s struggles while watching their closest neighbours Cavalry FC of less than 200 miles away in Calgary enjoying a fabulous first season, topping both spring and fall tables and being so close to becoming the first ever CPL champions, narrowly missing out to Forge FC in the final. When asked if that has intensified the rivalry between the cities, Steve said, “Yes and no. The thing is, many of the Cavalry and FCE players played on Alberta provincial teams together. The coaches all know each other. There is a strong feeling of Alberta versus the rest of Canada in this province and that really shows itself in the soccer as well. So, the rivalry is sort of a ‘frenemies’ thing. Imagine Spurs’ and Arsenal’s managers being the best of friends and their players going for pints after the match. That’s sort of the Al Classico thing. Once the games end, the respect level is high. It’s maybe the most bizarre regional derby I know of.”
That may be the most Canadian thing about the whole of the soccer scene in the country – even the rivals are friendly towards each other… The passion is clearly still there though, and fans of Edmonton will be desperate to improve in the future.
There is one more thing that is absolutely crucial to the club – it would be scandalous to write about FC Edmonton and not mention the rabbit. Steve recalled the incident which led to the rabbit association, “The rabbit dates back to Foote Field, in NASL 2.0’s first season in 2011. It seemed like rabbits – which are common here in Edmonton – would come onto the field before good things would happen for the team. And then in a Canadian Championship game against Montreal (MLS), there were lots of rabbit sightings before the match and FCE came back from being down in that first leg to win 2-1 on a Michael Nonni goal. That semi final ended in very controversial fashion in Montreal, when a 97th-minute penalty allowed Montreal to snatch the tie from Edmonton.”
As that game progressed, a rabbit entered the field and sat itself right in front of the Montreal goal mouth. Whilst the Impact players chased the rabbit off the field, the Eddies remained unnerved and saw out the victory. Henceforth, the ‘Rally Rabbit’ has garnered a cult status and has been consistently welcomed and cheered by home fans on each of its subsequent appearances and treated as a sign of good luck. Why have a lucky rabbit’s foot when you can have the whole bunny? Since the inception of the Canadian Premier League, Blue Bolt has been accompanying Edmonton to their home games at Clarke Stadium.
Will Bolt be able to bring better fortune to the Eddies in 2021?
Following the conclusion of the Island Games, head coach Jeff Paulus stepped aside. His successor will be South African coach Alan Koch who has previously managed teams across North America in both the MLS and USL. A almost 10-year association with the club has not ended though. Having previously worked with the FCE academies, Jeff Paulus will return to a familiar role of helping find and guide the future stars of Edmonton as Manager of Player Development. With the next generation already being moulded in the academy and the expert eye of Paulus watching over them, FC Edmonton will evolve as it always does.