In this series, iconic Canadian soccer players recount their experiences playing and developing their game in a city that now welcomes a new team in the Canadian Premier League.
Lars Hirschfeld knew that his dream of becoming a professional soccer player wouldn’t come easily, or without some sacrifice. The soccer scene in his hometown of Edmonton wasn’t as well-developed in the 1980s as it is today, with FC Edmonton set to kick off its Canadian Premier League adventure in April of 2019.
For the former Canadian Men’s National Team goalkeeper, developing his game in Edmonton also came with some unique challenges. Now retired at 39, Hirschfeld is back in his native Edmonton and took some time to speak with The CPL about his youth soccer days in Alberta, playing in industrial warehouses “like something out of the movies” – nothing like the professional game that has taken root in the city today with FC Edmonton.
“It was dark and smoke-filled. There were fights all the time,” Hirschfeld said of his old stomping grounds, when asked for details regarding his youth soccer experiences in the city. “I can’t really describe it, but it was the heart and soul of football back then. It was a small group of passionate people that met up and played in this one warehouse in the middle of east Edmonton.
“It was old-school. You would never have (that atmosphere) nowadays,” he continued. “Smoking was allowed, there was a bar in there. It was pretty rough around the edges, compared to what we have today, which is very, very polished.”
Back then, Hirschfeld explained, the only option available during the winter was small-sided, indoor soccer, but that came with a number of obstacles, especially for a goalkeeper. The switch from a 24×8-foot net to an 8×6-foot net each year was a difficult transition, and Hirschfeld said that while that shift was “great for working on stuff like reactions and shot-stopping,” it made him “miss so much of the outdoor game that it was hard to develop” full-time.
“It was a real hinderance,” Hirschfeld admitted.
In looking back, Hirschfeld seemed in awe of the surreal nature of his youth playing career as he recounted his experiences in Edmonton, and admits he knows he didn’t go through the normal route to get to the national team level, either.
Having been overlooked by scouts at the time, Hirschfeld opted to try for a spot in Europe, instead. But first, he had to go to school, a promise he made with his father, who in turn offered to pay for his ticket abroad when he finally went for a trial in Germany.
Hirschfeld studied instrumentation engineering at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, while serving as a “training dummy and backup goalkeeper” with the Edmonton Drillers, a role he described as his part-time job. He made contact with coach Thomas Niendorf, who opened a door to Germany for himself, as well as fellow future Canadian national team star Kevin McKenna. A two-week trial with Energie Cottbus during December break of his final year of school turned into a contract offer, which Hirschfeld had to initially decline.
“I had to look them in the eye and say I can’t take it,” Hirschfeld said. “They looked at me in disbelief, like I’m actually saying no to a contact, but they said ‘okay, we understand’ and post-dated the contract to start in the summer when school was over. I finished up my last semester at school, then took it. My dad was true to his word. He paid for my ticket, and that was it.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Hirschfeld went on to play for a number of high-profile clubs in England and Norway, including Tottenham, Leicester City, Rosenborg, Valerenga, and, most recently, KFUM-Kameratene Oslo. He made 48 appearances with Canada’s senior team, too.
Now, Hirschfeld has returned home to Edmonton, where he believes the differences in soccer are night and day.
“The kids have a lot more than we did back in the day,” Hirschfeld said. “I don’t know if they realize it, but facilities are much better than what we had. The mentality has changed over the years as well.”
He added: “The Canadian Premier League is exactly what we need. We need somewhere for Canadian players to develop and for our players to showcase themselves … and the Canadian public needs to back it.”
FC Edmonton is a proud member of the Canadian Premier League, which will begin play in April of 2019. Membership deposits can be made at FCEdmonton.Club. Fans will be able to put down a $50 deposit to secure their place in line to become founding season ticket members.