Programming note: I want to watch a replay of the Montreal Impact - Vancouver Whitecaps match before I dive into a review. Watch for it later this morning.
Obviously, as a part-time FC Edmonton supporter, I'm... is "gutted" the right word? I'm not sure what to call it. They went into a game they had no expectation of winning. They suffered a grievous setback early as Shaun Saiko was given a straight red card, unjustly, for a fifty-fifty tackle. And yet they fought hard, had their moments, perhaps even dominated the game for about twenty minutes, showed some stuff. They fell down 1-0 on a lovely bit of superior play from Toronto FC but that's soccer. Through forty-five minutes none of the 5,781 paying patrons in Commonwealth Stadium could have been too disappointed.
Then the wheels fell off. Or the training wheels, anyway. Two diabolical mistakes from FC Edmonton, their composure seemingly shattered, their every touch going awry. It wound up being a 3-0 final, essentially handing Toronto FC a berth in the Voyageurs Cup final barring either a miracle or complete roster mismanagement from Toronto head coach Aron Winter.
It was closer than a 3-0 scoreline indicated. But that doesn't mean it was close. Toronto was fully deserved victors. And yet what could have been? One converted chance, one mistake less from Edmonton, and we're talking about a 2-1 Toronto final and a first round that's at least in doubt. Now, the Red Patch Boys can almost start booking days off in confidence that they'll be going to either Vancouver or Montreal in a few weeks.
That's not a home opener anybody wants.
It went pearshaped for FC Edmonton from the beginning. I've already discussed the awfulness of the scheduling, forced upon FC Edmonton's brass by a stubborn Rogers Sportsnet that didn't want to have to show a soccer doubleheader on a Wednesday night. It made it impossible for many Edmontonians to get from work to the game in time for kickoff through rush-hour traffic. Then nature intervened, bringing ferocious winds and sputtering rain around kickoff time. There probably wasn't a single walk-up sale.
At first, those who did attend got their money's worth. At first. Former two-time Vancouver Whitecap Kyle Porter was a surprise starter up top for Edmonton, his transfer to the Eddies having just gone through on Monday. He looked pretty lively and effective, getting a few decent chances and setting up a couple others. Shaun Saiko, in central midfield, justified all my hype, and Alex Surprenant might just have been the most effective player on either team.
It wasn't until the twenty-third minute that things went awry. A ball came through centre towards Saiko and young Toronto starter Oscar Cordon. Both players left their feet to go for it and collided. Cordon got the worse of it, although after a few minutes he was back on his feet and finished the game. But Saiko saw red from an overprotective referee, fearing another Steve Zakuani situation and flashing red while Cordon was still rolling around on the plastic. It was a preposterous call; both Alex Surprenant and Edmonton head coach Harry Sinkgraven took the time to criticize it in the post-game press conference. But it was the call that was made, depriving FC Edmonton of their midfield engine and putting them down to ten men with more than an hour left to play. That rash decision bought Saiko an early shower and also guaranteed him a mandatory one-match suspension for the second leg in Toronto.
Initially, it must be said, Edmonton came out brilliantly. Far from sitting back, Surprenant romped forward and FC Edmonton played something like a 3-3-3, putting Toronto on their back feet and winning some chances. But, alas, they did not convert. Veteran forward Conrad Smith, a Trinidad and Tobago international, has been earning my eternal emnity: the man is pretty good on his feet, has plenty of muscle, and a non-trivial amount of skill. But his shot is poor and he has an absolute driving fear of passing: he's an awful, awful ball hog who took the ball himself into situations he never should have considered and cost Edmonton both opportunities and possession. I found myself despising Smith before the ninety minutes were up.
Toronto's goal came through a lovely finish by Maicon Santos, as he caught the ball deep into the Edmonton area. He was being marked by Paul Hamilton, a favourite of mine who had a simply horrible game in every area (not to mention being kicked in the face on an exceedingly rash would-be scissor kick by Alan Gordon). Hamilton actually stumbled over his own feet as the pass arrived, letting Maicon get by him unchallenged and easily slot the ball past Rein Baart.
And if that had been all there was, I could have left Commonwealth Stadium with my head held high anyway.
Instead, Edmonton simply lost their grip in the second half. Is it because the players aren't used to playing with each other? Or because so many of them are young, from such disparate soccer backgrounds? Did the head coaching change throw off the team's psyche? Either way, mentally, Edmonton collapsed in the second half. They could hardly string two passes together. Their players were too individual in every sense. They made careless mistakes. Alan Gordon tapped in one of the easiest goals he'll ever see as Edmonton utterly failed to clear the ball from their area given numerous opportunities and the ball fell to Gordon's feet after being hacked off the line by Hamilton. What do you think happened?
The third goal was even worse. Rein Baart took a kick and hit it right to Maicon Santos. It was just him and Joao Plata against Baart. Well, what the hell do you think would happen? Of course Maicon Santos scored and put Toronto up 3-0. On the other end, Conrad Smith tried to take on three Toronto defenders at once, or came barging through the middle, with Kyle Porter wide open at the top of the area, and crank a limp shot that went nowhere. Alex Surprenant hit a fine free kick from distance that just kissed over the top of the goal post. There were still chances for Edmonton, even down a man and three goals. But they couldn't make them count. No wonder Aron Winter said after the game that he was happy with the score but not so happy with his team's play; on another day, Edmonton would have been right back in that thing.
Edmonton got outplayed. Obviously. But what really makes it infuriating is that, had Edmonton put in a team effort and cut down on their mistakes, a result was there for the taking. They looked like an expansion team. One with bags of skill but no self-assurance or team play. I'd hoped the exhibition season would take care of that. Apparently not.
Game Ball: this could go a couple different ways but I have to hand it to Alex Surprenant, the left back. He was one of the few Edmonton players who more-or-less held up his end of the bargain defensively and he added to that by being the team's greatest threat off set pieces and on the counter. It was quite a nice game from the former Impact star prospect, and he showed off why everyone's so high on him if he can stay healthy.
Most Disappointing: without question, this "honour" goes to Conrad "Ballhog" Smith. What did he get right? I love his athleticism, but he seems to be carrying points of mental fat. Trying to knock his way through Major League Soccer defenders instead of passing, taking shots from distance at a poor angle instead of passing... by the end of the game, Toronto could send three men to cover Smith knowing full well that he could never make them regret it. Is it possible to be completely washed up at 29? Smith might be getting there. He's a later addition to the roster than some of the other FC Edmonton players, so I'm hopeful it's just a comfort thing with him, but Kyle Porter was making his first appearance and he looked fine.
Next Up: Edmonton is in Montreal on Sunday to take on the Impact in regular season play. I won't be covering that game, but I will have coverage-from-afar when FC Edmonton travels to BMO Field in Toronto to play out the string and put the first round of the Voyageurs Cup out of its misery. The game will be broadcast on Sportsnet Ontario and West.