Next Saturday, Canada's latest professional soccer hope will finally kick off its first regular season. After much anticipation, controversy, and debate, FC Edmonton will travel to Florida and take on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on April 9 at 4:30 PM PDT. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers, formerly Miami FC, aren't exactly an unholy terror on the soccer field. In last year's exhibition season, FC Edmonton drew then-Miami FC 1-1 thanks to a Kyle Yamada goal, so there's some history there.
People have been skeptical about FC Edmonton from the beginning, sometimes for good reason. Their website was once ugly and semi-professional, their marketing is still criticized. They haven't got much of a stadium although that bit's not their fault. They've lost their head coach, one of their assistants, the general manager, and two key players before they've played a league game. Whatever the individual circumstances for each of those events, they add up to a pretty worrying picture.
And now the roster. With so little time until NASL First Kick, we can be fairly confident that FC Edmonton's roster is close to set. Their most recent signing came on Saturday, with one-time Canadian international and recent Toronto FC trialist Eddy Sidra joining the team along with a new assistant coach. The team also has former Whitecaps midfielder/forward Kyle Porter and former Ottawa Fury defender Adrian LeRoy in camp on trial; I can't speak for LeRoy's status, but Porter was of course recently auditioning with the Montreal Impact. But the core of the team we see now will likely be the core of the team going forward.
As ever, there's skepticism about the roster, which does contain a large number of unproven players. Last week, Duane Rollins gave his opinion on the roster in unflattering terms. This was before Sidra and Porter were added, but his opinion wasn't exactly limited to "this team just needs a utility attacking player and an undersized fullback." The roster may just be one more area FC Edmonton has cheaped out on and screwed up.
Well, no. In case you can't tell from the title, it isn't. I'm not saying that FC Edmonton is going to be challenging for titles in their first season, but by the standards of the league they really aren't bad.
Like any team in their position, FC Edmonton has strengths and weaknesses. 38-year-old Rein Baart (39 next week) came to FC Edmonton after spending his career in the Eredivisie, mostly as a starter since 1998 but falling into a backup role starting in 2007. He sounds old and decrepit, but an Eredivisie backup goalkeeper with starting experience is almost automatically one of the five best goalkeepers in the NASL. Beyond Baart it's mostly youth, but with some impressive players: former Middlesborough trainee (and first-class prospect, in my opinion) Shaun Saiko, former star Montreal Impact prospect before his career was derailed by injuries Alex Surprenant, the aforementioned Sidra, talented but inexperienced Sam Lam, my boy Alex Semenets... well, have a look at the prospective starting eleven I drew up for them on the back of a cocktail napkin.
Eddy Sidra - Niko Saler - Antonio Rago - Alex Surprenant
Sam Lam - Shaun Saiko - Paul Matthijs
Chris Lemire - Dan Antoniuk - Alex Semenets
Is it just me, or is that not bad? I mean, I don't buy those forwards at all, obviously; Yamada hasn't proven anything, Antoniuk left most of his goals in 2005, and Lemire has mostly played Alberta amateur soccer since his days with the Edmonton Aviators. But you can look that midfield in the eye. Saiko and Lam are both the real deal, Semenets I can vouch for (he can play some forward but he's naturally a left-sided attacking winger; still, he seems to have mostly played forward in a 4-3-3 this preseason), and Matthijs has gotten the job done in much better leagues than this. And that defense will have to be an awfully aggressive bunch with both Sidra and Surprenant on the wings but seems poised to do some real damage. That's really a pretty competent starting eleven by mid-table NASL standards!
The bench has some interesting pieces as well. Paul Hamilton, a long-haired fullback, comes into this league with no pedigree but convinced me during the friendly season that he can play this game. A few of the forwards, like former UPEI MVP and CIS All-Canadian Paul Craig, at least look interesting if not exactly convincing. Midfielders Dominic Oppong and Chris Kooy are interesting players who haven't yet gotten a chance at the NASL level but have done well at lower tiers. Good players such as Matthijs, Semenets, and Sidra can move between positions, giving the team options.
Perhaps a comparison will be instructive. The 2010 NSC Minnesota Stars made the USSF D2 playoffs. Their starting goalkeeper for most of the year, Joe Warren, was nicknamed "Papa". He was 35 years old and hadn't played pro soccer since 2006 because he had retired. But, at the NASL level, he was okay and actually made some dandy saves. Co-leading scorer Brian Cvilikas's only previous professional success had come with the USL Division Two Wilmington Hammerheads. His co-leader, Simone Bracalello, was a 25-year-old Italian who couldn't even find a team in 2009 and had never risen further in Italy than Serie D. Team captain Johnny Menyongar was a frankly rather mediocre A-League/USL-1 journeyman for a decade with the Minnesota Thunder and Rochester Rhinos. Many core players were either inherited from the old Thunder (not a great team) or young players with little pedigree on their way up the chain. Again, this team made the playoffs, which anybody in Edmonton would consider a success for their first season.
The team is avoiding most of the Aviators' mistakes. They haven't loaded up on so-called local talent, with only a few players having Alberta connections and those players having mostly proven themselves elsewhere. They've gotten kids, but they've gotten kids who've proven something elsewhere: Surprenant, Saiko, and Semenets being the best examples. They've got a few veterans, like Baart and Matthijs, on whom you can rely, and tried to make a few bargain signings like Lemire and Antoniuk who were successful once and are young enough to bounce back. The addition of players like Sidra and possibly Porter who could command decent salaries proves that the team isn't spendthrift, as if the whole "European coaching staffs with training camps in Arizona and Florida" thing didn't do it for you.
I don't think they have it made. I'd love to see a veteran forward with some recent scoring pedigree in there; is Eduardo Sebrango still looking for a job? He'd be absolutely ideal. Kyle Porter isn't a veteran but if he signs he'd help out; he sure looked capable enough with the Whitecaps despite joining late in the season. And I'd like to see a veteran centre back as well; again going to the former Whitecaps pool, what's Nelson Akwari up to these days? He would be, quite literally, a perfect fit for this team. Healthy, strong, aerially inclined, in the prime of life, and with the experience to keep what's a fairly young back four in shape.
Still, I do think this is a team that's going to stay out of the NASL basement. When you look at FC Edmonton's roster, what you see is how smart mid-budget NASL teams build. It's easy to forget for fans at the MLS level, but this is the reality of Division Two: journeymen, youth, and a few real talents to anchor it all. FC Edmonton seems to be doing it right.