Friday, April 29, 2011

FC Edmonton: a litmus test for Canadian soccer

Over the past forty years going back to the early years of the North American Soccer League, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have usually been able to field some sort of pro soccer side almost every summer in a top tier league either in a North American or Canadian context. One of the key problems faced by Canadian soccer has always been moving beyond those three cities where the sport is now reasonably firmly entrenched as a spectator sport into the other cities which are successfully able to sustain pro teams in the context of the CFL and NHL. Edmonton has always been the city outside of the big three where pro soccer has appeared to be most likely to make the breakthrough so if FC Edmonton can't make a go of it in the North American Soccer League this summer despite the recent progress in an MLS context many people will probably conclude that soccer remains a niche interest followed primarily by the recent immigrant demographic, which is concentrated to a large extent in the GTA, lower mainland BC and Montreal.

Pro soccer first surfaced in Edmonton during the Pele boom years of the late 70s with a semi-pro side called the Black Gold. They were soon replaced by an NASL team called the Edmonton Drillers after the Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington bought the Oakland Stompers franchise from Milan Mandaric and moved it to Alberta. The Drillers lasted for four seasons at times drawing crowds of up to 10,000 but were one of the franchises to quickly fall by the wayside as the recession of the early 80s and inflated player salaries due to competition from the MISL slowly and the unsustainable spending of the New York Cosmos led to the NASL's relatively rapid death spiral. Along the way the NASL's indoor title was won in 1981, however, and subsequently Pocklington resurrected the Drillers in the context of the now defunct National Professional Soccer League, which eventually folded due to an unsustainable economic model and competition for top North American players from the newly emerged MLS but at times drew highly encouraging paid attendances of between 5,000 and 10,000. In contrast post-original NASL outdoor teams like the Brickmen and Aviators of the original CSL and USL-D1 struggled to make the same sort of headway in terms of fan support and soon folded.

Edmonton Drillers opening game

So why is there reason to believe that things will be different this time? One of the key problems in the past has been that while teams based in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal can always find a number of good players locally who are willing and able to compete against elite teams from across North America for relatively poor salaries, it has been more difficult to field a competitive team on that sort of basis in an Alberta context based on players from leagues like the AMSL due to the smaller population and more mainstream demographics. The positive start made to the season with two wins and one loss during a three game road trip is therefore very encouraging given there are 14 players from Alberta on the roster. Even the 0-3 loss to Toronto FC in the NCC disguises the fact that goal scoring chances were being created even with ten men much to the displeasure of Aron Winter. When the Aviators played in USL-D1 in 2004 they were up against dominant franchises from Vancouver, Seattle and Portland in the Western Conference that have now moved onto MLS. The Brickmen arguably faced a similar problem with regards to the Vancouver 86ers in the context of the original CSL. The recent expansion of the first division of the game in North America to take in most of the traditional hotbeds of the sport may well have created a second division environment where not just FC Edmonton but future entries from cities like Hamilton, Ottawa and Quebec City can easily field teams that are competitive enough to sustain fan interest without having to break the bank by having to bring almost an entire roster in from outside the local area.

The other reason for optimism is the ownership. The Fath brothers appear to be in it for the long haul and have talked about building a soccer specific stadium in the next three to five years. Last summer FC Edmonton played a series of exhibition games after a relatively high profile Canadian born Dutch coach called Dwight Lodeweges put together a roster of players based on a $1 million salary budget. Other ownership groups might have been scared away when attendance at high profile games against Colo Colo and Portsmouth failed to meet expectations but the Fath brothers have stuck with their soccer investment and have continued to make the right moves to field a winning team. Dwight Lodeweges moved onto JEF United in Japan in the off season but was soon replaced by another experienced coach with an Eredivisie level playing career, Harry Sinkgraven. The team recently went on an extended preseason training camp in Arizona, to try to ensure a winning start and a good first impression.

FC Edmonton Drillers 0 Toronto FC 3

Will the fans get behind the team this time? That remains the $64,000 question. The crowd of 5,781 in this week's Nutrilite Canadian Championship game has already resulted in negativity in the local media from a prominent local sports columnist. There were extenuating circumstances, however, like a 6pm kick off time to fit the needs of the broadcaster looking for ratings in southern Ontario, inclement weather and competition for interest from two NHL playoff series which went all the way to game seven. A crowd of that size doesn't look good in the context of the 60,000 seat Commonwealth Stadium even if it's moderately encouraging from a soccer standpoint given what has happened in the past in similar circumstances. Starting on Sunday against the Montreal Impact, the regular season games are going to be played at the far smaller 3,500 seat Foote Field on the University of Alberta campus. Regardless of the spin that will be probably be placed on things by Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun even just being able to approach capacity in a stadium of that size would be a huge achievement for a D2 soccer franchise. If FC Edmonton can successfully achieve that this summer and field a competitive D2 level side based on a roster drawn primarily from Alberta, Canadian soccer will have passed an important litmus test. There will be reason to believe that the sport can finally be made to work in business terms in about half a dozen smaller cities from coast to coast and that a key missing link in the player development system between U18 youth academy level and MLS senior rosters can be filled on that basis in a manner that will provide opportunities for several dozen young Canadian players to earn a living in a fully pro environment while chasing the dream of a lucrative pro soccer career either overseas or closer to home in MLS.

Toronto Lynx vs Vancouver Whitecaps in 2000

It's easy to forget that a decade or so ago crowds of around 1500 to 2000 were very much the norm in Toronto and Montreal at a D2 level and that a heavy emphasis often had to be placed on one off youth soccer group sales to even achieve that. If FC Edmonton can lay the foundation this summer by replicating that level of interest, a decade or so of patient investment by the Fath brothers could easily lead to bigger and better things down the road if a soccer specific stadium similar to Stade Saputo in Montreal can be built in a suitable location. There will be people more used to watching the best overseas pro leagues on cable who will find the D2 level of soccer available locally difficult to take seriously at first but that was very much the case in Vancouver and Toronto as well in the not too distant past. FC Edmonton will initially have to be marketed towards hardcore soccer fan and youth soccer groups sales. It will be interesting to see to what extent the youth soccer registration boom of the last twenty years has changed the landscape relative to the era when players like the late Justin Fashanu and David Norman played for the Brickmen in the original CSL before acres of empty seats. I'm cautiously optimistic things will turn out for the best this time.

Edmonton Brickmen vs Vancouver 86ers in 1989

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