Alan Koch has seen a lot in football in more than 20 years as a coach. He’s been to a U.S. Open Cup semifinal, and he’s led a table-topping team in USL. He was FC Cincinnati’s first manager in Major League Soccer.
He has never faced a challenge quite like this one.
The FC Edmonton coach, now midway through his second season in the job, is steering the team through its most tumultuous year to date. It’s no secret that the Eddies find themselves in an unenviable position right now. On New Year’s Eve, the Canadian Premier League officially took over operations of the club as a search began for new ownership.
When Koch first took the reins in Edmonton, he expected an uphill battle. He inherited a club fresh off a last-place finish at the CPL’s Island Games competition in 2020, which the Eddies finished with just one point from seven games. But the experienced South Africa-born coach returned to Canada, a country he knows well from his years with Simon Fraser University and the Vancouver Whitecaps organization, with a singular goal: To help FC Edmonton win a trophy.
The climb was always going to be steep.
“We worked incredibly hard with all the stakeholders here in 2021 to try and progress as much as possible, and we were swimming up a river with a fairly strong current, to be brutally honest, but we were making progress,” Koch said last week.
“We improved on the field and improved a lot of things off the field, but you could feel — I didn’t know exactly what was transpiring — but you could feel something was amiss. I wasn’t told exactly what was happening until the end of the season, but you could feel it was a challenge. And obviously what’s transpired with the club, with the ownership, we’re all fully aware of that now.”
In Koch’s first season at the helm, FCE finished seventh in the league table with six wins, 10 draws, and 12 defeats. The young squad improved steadily over the year, and they delivered some memorable wins at Clarke Stadium — including triumphs over both eventual CPL finalists, Pacific and Forge, within the last two months of the season. Star forward Easton Ongaro finished second in the Golden Boot race.
As 2021 ended, though, so too did all that progress. The climb got steeper.
“We went through the first year thinking it’s a rebuild year,” Koch said. “I think I remember saying in interviews, ‘We’re rebuilding, we’re rebuilding, we’re rebuilding,’ but we rebuilt to go into survival mode, and that’s not exactly how anybody envisioned it, of course.”
Koch learned of the club’s dire straits in a phone call on December 21. They would not be able to keep almost any of the players they’d hoped to retain, and would have to build a new squad essentially from scratch, on a drastically reduced budget.
Koch and club president Jeff Harrop set out on that unexpected quest in January and February, with the season only a few short months away.
“We went through a very, very tumultuous off-season. I’ve done this for 22 years and I’ve never, ever been through anything like that. I think we could cry every single day about it, or we could embrace it as growth opportunities. I feel like I’ve learned more as the head coach of FC Edmonton than I’ve probably learned anywhere along this journey, and that’s because of all of the adversity that we’ve had to face,” Koch said.
“The League had never been through this type of situation either, so when nobody has been through something like this … it’s understandable that things take time for people to process and try to deal with things. Because of that, we’ve been almost in reactionary mode non-stop.”
The pitch to prospective players was a simple one: FC Edmonton in 2022 would become FC Opportunity. Clarke Stadium might well see more professional debuts this season than any other field in Canada. When word got out that Edmonton would be such a land of opportunity this season, about 85 to 95 young players answered the call, Koch said.
“It just shows how much young players in Canada are champing at the bit for this opportunity. It was absolutely mind-blowing to see the hunger, the enthusiasm, the willingness to do whatever it takes from all these trialists,” he said.
“That whole trial period, it was difficult. Our preseason wasn’t a preseason, it was assessing trialists. And while we went about that process, we unearthed a few gems, players that I think will be playing professional football for a long time. So that was a positive, but we’ve had to be very reactionary in our phases, our building, our periodization, how we go about putting this team together.”
The team FCE landed on is young and inexperienced, with an average age below 23 years old and an average of fewer than 30 professional games per player. The club signed many trialists to their first contracts, often making use of a special provision that allowed FCE to take more than the maximum number of players on loan from other CPL clubs, the rest of the league supporting the Eddies’ efforts to field a team. Many of the players in camp are still new to the pro game, as is much of the club’s technical staff.
Koch had something of a group to work with by the time the current CPL season kicked off. Five players returned to the team from 2021, although Azriel Gonzalez, Tobias Warschewski, and Shamit Shome are now on loan from other CPL teams. Local products T-Boy Fayia and Darlington Murasiranwa are the only full returnees.
“You can imagine what our daily work environment is like,” Koch said. “It’s very pedagogical; we’re teaching players and staff what professional football is like every single day, in potentially one of the most challenging environments you could have been put into. The players are learning, the assistant coaches and support staff are learning; I think the big positive byproduct of all this is an absolutely fantastic educational moment for a lot of people that wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity in Canadian soccer if our club wasn’t in such a dire situation.”
Many of those players have seized their opportunity in Edmonton. Wesley Timoteo, a 22-year-old Montreal native, is one of those youngsters who impressed on trial. Gabriel Bitar, a 23-year-old U SPORTS-level standout who had yet to get a real chance in the CPL, is one of the league’s in-form players as well. They’re but two of a long list of players whose careers have found new life in Edmonton this year.
“We don’t have the ability to sign many experienced players or sign those high-quality players, and you see that in our games,” Koch offered. “We’ve tried to be competitive in almost every game we’ve played, and I give my absolute kudos to all the players. These guys are working their absolute backsides off to be successful, and I’m incredibly proud to lead this group, but our limitations do show.
“There’s individual moments where we struggle, there’s moments where maybe we could capitalize on our opponents’ mistakes or weaknesses and we don’t, and those are all directly related to the model and the roster build we have to work with.”
FC Edmonton are bottom of the CPL standings with a 1-4-8 record at the time of publication, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story of its 2022 campaign. Results have been hard to come by and the gap in quality between the Eddies and some of the league’s top sides has shown in moments when the Eddies have squandered a lead, or conceded soft goals.
There’s no hiding the advantages that other clubs have over Edmonton at the moment. A tighter budget means a smaller staff, less-than-ideal training, and difficult travel schedules. Koch recently complimented Atlético Ottawa on their high standard of operations, hoping one day his club might be able to match that.
“I’m very, very impressed and I find it inspirational what Ottawa have done, I really hope our club will hopefully have the opportunity to do something like that in the future,” he said.
“But you see the staff they come in with, they’re doing it right. They come in to Edmonton two days before, they’re going about their business in an appropriate manner. You see the Forges, the Pacifics, the Cavalrys, when we go to those places or they come to us, it’s the little details. It’s the ability to have a certain staff member be responsible for something, and having extra bodies around is always a positive.
Being short staffed means everyone in Edmonton wear many hats. Koch has always put in long hours, but he puts in more for the Eddies.
“We do that with hope, we do that with belief,” Koch said. “We believe in the Edmonton project.”
There have been positive moments for Edmonton this year, too. Warschewski scored an unforgettable world-class bicycle kick in the team’s season opener to equalize against Valour deep in stoppage time. The Eddies won their first game of 2022 more than a week ago, with a gutsy 1-0 result over a good Atlético Ottawa team.
It’s important to savour those moments, Koch said.
“I don’t think I’ve celebrated a win or a point or moments as much as I personally have celebrated things this year, because I know the strife and the challenges we’ve gone through to get them. When you have a moment, personally, for a player like Tobi who’s been through a lot, with a world-class goal, it’s an amazing feeling for everybody that has anything to do with our club,” he said.
“We’ve lost a lot of games, and nobody likes losing. I absolutely despise losing, and thankfully I haven’t done much of it in my career until now. That’s not fun. We speak to the players all the time about learning from these opportunities, but you sound like a broken record saying the same thing over and over and over again. So to see the players get rewarded with points, or the victory like we had the other day, those are massive, massive achievements that the group will take a lot out of.”
It’s also not lost on the staff and players of FC Edmonton what the club means to the soccer community in the Albertan capital. Koch received personal messages from devoted supporters thanking him following the team’s win over Ottawa. He was quick to return the thanks, for sticking with the team through such difficult times.
Such moments give everyone around FC Edmonton renewed hope and faith in what the club is working toward. Koch, who still calls British Columbia home, is enamoured with the Edmonton soccer community. He hopes the CPL club can thrive at the centre of it all.
“I think anybody that’s spent much time on the ground in Edmonton can see this is a true soccer city. There’s passion for the game, and that’s not just support for the national teams. You go into the community, you see all the clubs, you see good people working, the number of kids that are playing the game here,” he said.
“If there’s a prospective new owner that comes forth, they’re coming into something where there is absolutely something special to work with. It just needs a lot of time, investment and energy to push us forward in the right direction… We have hope and belief that all the hard work we’re doing right now will be rewarded, for the club, for the community, for the city, and that moving forward there will be this owner that comes in and realizes that they have something special that they’re investing in, and we can all work together to move this forward in year three.”
Koch and the Eddies, along with the rest of the Canadian soccer community, continue to await a new ownership group to come along, hopefully in the near future.
Until then, they have no choice but to carry on with their hard work on and off the pitch.
“I think in life and in football, you have to have hope,” Koch concluded. “We don’t have a choice. We get up in the morning, and what are we going to do — cry every day? We’re just going to get on with it.”