FC Edmonton has been left behind both on and off the field early this NASL season. (John Van Woerden/North American Soccer League)
FC Edmonton's had a rough start to the year. Clarke Park still hasn't gotten the long-awaited seating upgrades, as the City of Edmonton is dallying over the building permits. Even the liquor license is taking its sweet time. The marketing is down from last season and attendances are going with it; an average gate of 1,196 through their first two regular-season home games. This isn't just down to the incomplete renovations: I'm told FC Edmonton hasn't halted ticket sales for capacity reasons.
What fans there are could use some wins. After a rough start against quality opposition and a Voyageurs Cup that consisted of moral victories and scoreboard defeats, Edmonton did manage to get things going with a 3-0 home win over Carolina (thanks for the hat trick, Shaun Saiko!) and then bagged a 2-0 win over Atlanta away. Harry Sinkgraven's troops finally had things going the right direction... then, on Saturday, they suffered a 2-0 loss in San Antonio which looked even worse than that score does.
Last year, FC Edmonton was the only Canadian professional team to make the playoffs. This year, they might not threaten Danny Koevermans and company for "worst team in the world" but they're still sixth out of eight teams and far from title contenders. What the hell is going on there?
You can rationalize some of Edmonton's early struggles: starting the season with three road games Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Puerto Rico is murderous. You couldn't pick a tougher NASL schedule. The home defeat to Minnesota was a 4-3 barnburner where a once-solid defensive team got into a slugging match with the defending champions and at least sent the fans home entertained. But that loss to San Antonio was a backbreaker.
The Scorpions have a few good players, including former Whitecaps Wes Knight, Greg Janicki, and Kevin Harmse as well as former first-class Carolina forward Pablo Campos Jr., and a multitude of less-good players including former Whitecap Blake Wagner. For all their doubtless-expensive and highly-touted skill, San Antonio's lineup is probably 60% cement by volume. Starting goalkeeper Pat Hannigan missed the game with injury, forcing in long-time Tampa water-carrier Daryl Sattler (who had little enough to do). They've loaded up on former MLS scrubs and, for every Wes Knight, they've signed a Matt Gold and a Ryan Cochrane.
Edmonton's two wins over Atlanta and Carolina aren't impressive; they're my picks for the two teams to miss the NASL playoffs. Carolina lost almost all of its quality (largely to the Whitecaps) and Atlanta's a great soccer town waiting for a great soccer team. Trouncing them was just business. But the expansion Scorpions are a team Edmonton needs to beat if they want to become more than bottom-half makeweights, and San Antonio owned the game. They weren't all that good; they were just sharper than Edmonton and seemed to have a conception of what the midfield was for.
Harry Sinkgraven is falling into an old trap: he knows Shaun Saiko and Matt Lam are his two best offensive players so he's playing them up top. This leaves midfield service in the hands of players like Chris Kooy and Dominic Oppong, who have strength, guts, and not a little common sense but with the ball at their feet couldn't play their way out of a paper bag. Veteran Dutch midfielder Ilja van Leerdam, probably the team's best-paid player, alternates between looking like one of the NASL's best players and one of its worst with alarming irregularity. Saiko is a magnificent shooter from distance, a quality playmaker, and the most all-round talented man in the NASL; Lam has nice moves, good speed, and a knack for playmaking down the wing. Both (but especially Saiko) are wasted up top rather than getting as many touches as possible in the middle.
Theoretically, Edmonton should have plenty of attacking options without misusing Saiko and Lam. Loanee Yashir Pinto looks like the real deal. Alex Semenets has been a favourite of mine forever, Kyle Porter's pedigree is proven, and the athletic Michael Cox has been making fans in Edmonton with his speed and single-minded determination.
Well, Semenets has spent most of his time with the FC Edmonton Reserves (scoring in bunches); Sinkgraven hasn't always seemed thrilled with Semenets's attitude and, for all his skill, he is an unusually one-dimensional player in a system which prioritizes playing both ways. Porter's been awfully inconsistent and has missed games with minor knocks. And I'm no Cox fan: he seems like a forward who succeeds young because he's bigger and faster than the other kids but has never learned to play the ball or finish at a professional level.
The team's been inconsistent defensively too. Not all of that is their fault, and the injuries at left back have been piling up. Fabrice Lassonde got off to a very good start but is on the injured list. Adam West came to Edmonton after not much of a career in Fort Lauderdale and it wasn't long before he, too, was struggling with a hamstring problem. 22-year-old Haitian international Fabien Vorbe got the start in San Antonio; with his distinctive hair style and his brick-shithouse build you won't mistake him for anyone else but oh my god what a raw player. Not a bad one; he's getting his first look at soccer at a really technical level this year. But raw, raw, raw; rawer than steak left on the patio in May. Worth holding onto but not starting.
Then again, you can't blame injuries for Sinkgraven needing a month to realize "hey, Antonio Rago is pretty good!" Rago played well for Edmonton last year, played well for Edmonton when I saw him in an exhibition game, and is a consistent right back who will never get on the highlight reel for good reasons as well as bad ones. Early starts went to Jonathan Joseph-Augustin who spent hours taking massive, steaming dumps in the middle of the field before being pulled. Joseph-Augustin is 31 years old and last played at even a decent level in 2007 but hey, he's French, he must be good. Speaking of which, central defender Kevin Hatchi has been displaying "released-by-the-non-playoff Montreal Impact" quality; he's been working poor Paul Hamilton (now also hurt) into knots trying to keep up with Hatchi's lazy positioning.
There have been pleasant surprises. Midfielder Kenny Caceros, whose origins have been explained to me but I'm pretty sure amount to "nowhere", held his own at BC Place and was playing decent no-nonsense soccer in San Antonio before getting hurt. Former University of Toronto goalkeeper John Smits is making a good start to his professional career, keeping a clean sheet in Atlanta and by no means being at fault in San Antonio. Both these players are untouted Canadians up from the college ranks, echoing the surprise success of Hamilton, Rago, and Kooy last year.
Indeed, Edmonton's biggest problems have been with its highest-profile players. Imports such as Hatchi, Van Leerdam, and Joseph-Augustin are generally an NASL team's best-paid players but in Edmonton, except sometimes for Van Leerdam, they are also its least effective (Pinto would earn a passing grade but he's on loan). It sounds like a really pathetic point, one made for nationalistic reasons, but the truth is that the more Edmonton relies on quality scouting and bringing in fine players from CIS, the better off they are. Not all of them are successes but enough of them are to be worth the effort.
Also, for heaven's sake don't play your best playmakers at the top of the park, Harry. Tactically, Edmonton's been a step behind not just this year but most of the last as well. Channel Dwight Lodeweges and put your players in their best positions rather than putting your best players in the positions you're most worried about.
Edmonton will probably still make the playoffs. But a sixth-place finish isn't going to bring attendance over 2,000 any time soon.