Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton is an excellent place to host a soccer game when it is full. Unfortunately, full for Commonwealth Stadium is 60,081 souls. The fewer people in Commonwealth, the closer you get to an average MLS or, worse, an average NASL team's attendance, and the more the cavernous emptiness of the place starts to stand out. Chants absorbed by a battalion of empty seats. Seven-eighths of the sections in the stadium closed off and what remains still looking altogether too modest.
Last night, FC Edmonton drew 8,762 fans to watch the new local boys take on the famous foreigners, Portsmouth, for something called the "Edmonton Cup".
What did those 8,762 fans get? Well, they paid not less than $34, after TicketMaster fees, for an adult ticket (the lowest price for general admission which wasn't even available online). They got an absolutely spectacular evening to watch soccer. They got an opponent with a famous name but nothing else famous about them. With FC Edmonton sporting their home blues Portsmouth was even forced out of their iconic blue strip and into their white and red away kit, detracting just a little from the air of fame surrounding the opponents.
The team selection was even less inspiring. Nary a name in the lineup would have been familiar to even the most ardent observer of the English leagues. Midfielder Michael Brown was the most famous one to turn out, going all ninety minutes. Striker David Nugent also played ninety minutes. But the rest of the team from top to bottom was reserve players, truly dedicated League bench warmers like Nadir Ciftci, and the dregs of Portsmouth's already rather poor organization.Five of Pompey's starting eleven had never played so much as a league game. Anybody who paid their minimum of $34 expecting a display of classic football from European professionals went home horrified.
The game itself was a dreary affair. Even with their watered-down lineup Pompey was clearly more skilled and athletic than FC Edmonton, but the Edmontonians played far better as a team. They kept their shape more readily and read each other better, misplaying far fewer balls and getting some nice opportunities out of well-conceived passing plays. Edmonton actually opened the scoring seven minutes in courtesy former Canadian U-2o and current Canadian beach soccer striker Chris Lemire, converting on one of those lovely Edmonton buildups and forcing the ball (and himself) through keeper Jon Stewart. Stewart was badly injured on Lemire's goal and left the game with suspicions of a broken leg, being replaced by Liam O'Brien.
O'Brien fumbled with the ball early in his relief appearance but eventually grew more and more steady. More importantly, as the game wore on Portsmouth's superior athleticism and skill began to tell. The Edmonton players seemed to wear down in spite of the cool evening. Their aerial ability was nil, and Portsmouth started to take more advantage of it. Meanwhile, as Edmonton grew tired their first touch let them down more and more, and balls that once found players began to float into touch.
Portsmouth was due to equalize and did through a nice bit of corner play from Nadir Ciftci, alertly poking in David Ritchie's curving ball. The teams were level both on the scoreboard and on the pitch, and the decisive match for the Edmonton Cup went to penalties (after some five minutes of confusion where the players seemed uncertain what was going to happen). Portsmouth prevailed, 5-4, and lifted a giant trophy it looked like someone had bought off the shelf of a sporting goods store.
The game was underwhelming, the players often incompetent. It was not of the calibre I've grown to expect from the North American second division. But the result was fair and Edmonton fans can say, with pride, that they held the FA Cup finalists to a 1-1 draw.
The 8,000-person crowd will raise a few concerned eyebrows. But it was a ferociously expensive mid-week game against a team that serious football fans can't really take seriously except as a butt for bankruptcy jokes. There was a surprisingly strong Portsmouth traveling contingent of about thirty souls, mostly middle-aged and very courteous Englishmen who could not, physically, have been less impressed with Edmonton. The recently relegated Blue Army turned out more fans for an utterly pedestrian friendly across the ocean against an obscure club that hasn't even played in the league yet than Canada gets for the Gold Cup! They were very nice men and women, all, and there for a good time, although when I left them it was after escorting them to a rather loud and quite obnoxious Budweiser "party tent" that I admit to leaving trails of fire running away from.
It was also encouraging to see the development of Edmonton's supporters culture. The FC Edmonton supporters brigade is both small and nameless, but it seems to be growing and a few fans got caught up in the fun from time to time. The chant repertory consists mostly of old favourites with new words sung unconvincingly, but it improved palpably even as the game wore on (for chanting is the kind of thing that develops only with practice). After Jon Stewart was replaced none of us had any idea who the substitute goalkeeper was, but tall and dressed in pink he made an easy target, so we settled for calling him "Billy" in our heckles until @coxon was nice enough to Tweet me his real name. I dunno. "Billy" was funnier.
It was also my first look at the much-reviled FieldTurf installed at Commonwealth this year. At the time it went in, I opined that for all the guff FieldTurf gets from the peanut gallery it will probably be better than the terrible grass pitch Commonwealth was once cursed by. Now I've seen it and it's definitely better. The ball was not afflicted by the random bumps and skips that were once the bane of soccer players in Edmonton. It stood up well to Edmonton's mostly ground-based attack and there was never any hint that it was playing anything but perfectly. A skeptic may say that Pompey suffered an inordinate number of injuries in the match, but Edmonton was perfectly healthy and the Portsmouth injuries were generally on account of Edmonton players running into them, not the turf.
All in all, it was a dreary game but a lovely evening. The sun was shining, the fans were cheering, and a professional soccer team in Edmonton was playing before my very eyes for the first time in my adult life. They could have lost 7-0 and I would have enjoyed it anyway.