FC Edmonton Has Left the Building

Players were told over Zoom that the plug had been pulled on the pro soccer team
Happier times: Big blue is pretty full for an FCE game in 2016 vs. Fort Lauderdale

“At a time when we’re celebrating Canada at the World Cup, we’ve lost one of our historic clubs. And this is a country that does not have a lot of historic clubs.”
— Alan Koch, now former FC Edmonton head coach

On Monday morning, FC Edmonton head coach Alan Koch received a phone call from team president Jeff Harrop. He and the players were to be assembled for a Zoom call later in the day.

During that meeting, the news Koch had feared was passed onto him and the players: FC Edmonton would not be going forward. The team will not play in the 2023 Canadian Premier League (CPL) season, ending an agonizing drama that has played out over the last year.

“Nobody had any questions,” said Koch. “Nobody spoke.”

Basically, it was the news that everyone on the call had been expecting to hear.

A few minutes after the Zoom chat, the news went out from the league, via a release. The CPL had “terminated” the rights of FC Edmonton owners Tom and Dave Fath to own a team in the league. It said the league hopes to bring in a new team with new owners down the road, but no timeline was given. The CPL made it clear that it won’t entertain bringing Edmonton back into the fold unless a new home can be found. Clarke Stadium, which FC Edmonton first called home in 2012 when the team was part of the North American Soccer League (NASL), just won’t cut it.

“This decision, while painful in the short term, will allow us to reset the market for a CPL return to Edmonton in the future,” CPL commissioner Mark Noonan said in the release. “The key to this return is having a proper facility to showcase our matches and provide a first-rate fan experience.  Unfortunately, Clarke Stadium in its current state is outdated and not suitable for this purpose.  We look forward to working with the City of Edmonton leadership on a strategy to return CPL to the market in an appropriate facility. With the right venue, we fully believe Edmonton can, and should be, one of the best markets in the CPL.”

“We knew this day was coming,” said Tom Fath. “It was effectively a mutual decision not to play in 2023.”

Fath said that in 2021 he informed the league that he and his brother could not run the team anymore. So, the team quietly took over operations of the club, and made that public last winter. The Faths retained ownership of the team they founded in 2010. The “for sale” sign was slapped on the team. With a bare-bones-budget roster, the team finished dead last and, many days, played in front of crowds of fewer than 1,000.

But while there were tire-kickers, no serious offer was fielded.

“We aren’t interested in running it anymore,” said Fath. “The rights of the team belong to the league. There is nothing left for us to sell.”

FC Edmonton had a rocky tenure in the NASL, which ceased operations in 2017. The Faths paid for stands to be installed at Clarke Stadium, raising the capacity from about 1,200 to more than 4,000. They paid for a new scoreboard and to establish an academy for promising teens who hoped to become professionals. All of that on top of salaries and punishing travel costs, sometimes more than $25,000 per road trip.

Even with that expansion of capacity at Clarke Stadium, Tom Fath said the team would lose money even if it sold out games. The team did have some high-water marks, such as sellouts when the New York Cosmos were in town and playing the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer cup competition.

The Faths had always hoped that an uptick in interest would lead to corporate sponsorships and support, and potentially a better facility which would allow soccer to be profitable.

Those never materialized, but the Faths agreed to join the CPL for its inaugural 2019 season. The Faths had previously paid to broadcast FC Edmonton game locally through M31, the media company they owned. As they prepped to join the CPL, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade their broadcast facilities, but, eventually, the CPL’s media rights were sold to MediaPro, a Spanish-based, Chinese-owned broadcast giant that later flirted with (but avoided) bankruptcy through COVID. The result? Hundreds of thousands of wasted dollars before FC Edmonton kicked a ball in the new league.

And interest, both with fans and media, dwindled after the team moved to the new league. Having the 2020 “season” played in a COVID bubble in Prince Edward Island didn’t help.

Still, Fath said he leaves the world of soccer “with head held high.”

“I think we did a lot for the city, and for the youth of the city,” said Fath. And, he made it clear the thing he was most proud of was the academy. He remembered having teens approach him at local soccer fields and asking him how to get into the program. He said he’s proud of the face that some of the kids from the academy got the chance to get college or university soccer scholarships, or got the chance to play pro soccer.

“When you give a young person the chance to excel in the sports or the arts, even if they don’t pursue it later in life, it really has a positive impact on them down the road,” said Fath.

But Koch said he believes Edmonton is still a great city for soccer.

“If someone comes into this city, they need to invest. I still believe that this city has the potential to be the best market in the league… I still believe in this league. We have to understand that this is a start-up project, and all of the teams are taking baby steps in terms of making progress.”

Koch, who worked in Cincinnati before coming to Edmonton, saw the difference investing in promotions can do.

“In Cincinnati, we could have played Humpty Dumpty FC, and fans would have come out.”

Fath said Koch, who is now looking for work, deserves a great opportunity in the game.

“You just had to look at our team and see what a fine, fine coach Alan is.”

Jay Ball, who was general manager of the team from 2016-19, and helped steward the move to the Canadian Premier League, said that it’s easy to toss barbs at the Fath right now, but fans need to remember that they invested in soccer when no one else was willing to do so. “Let’s also remember that hundreds of youth were impacted through the Fath’s generosity in supporting the male and female youth academies. I think it’s really fitting that the final game of FC Edmonton had a young 17-year-old keeper who was a direct product of the FC Edmonton Academy. Also, it’s important to note that a lot of great staff have come through the organization over the last 11 to 12 years, both in the front office and technical side. Many of them are still working in the professional sports and entertainment field and got their start through FC Edmonton. Again, this is thanks to Tom and Dave for keeping the game alive in Edmonton. It was a privilege to work with these talented people. I’m confident pro-soccer will make a triumphant return to Edmonton one day — hopefully in a proper soccer-specific venue, worthy of a home for local clubs, fans and supporters.”

There’s a catch-22 when it comes to said soccer venue, that currently doesn’t exist. The CPL wants the City to have a better soccer facility in place if FC Edmonton is to return. But, when Edmonton didn’t get World Cup games for 2026, hundreds of millions of provincial and federal dollars to potentially build such a facility evaporated. Former commissioner David Clanachan had longingly looked at Re/Max Field as a potential home for pro soccer, but with the emergence of the Edmonton Riverhawks, and improvements made to the stadium to make it a better baseball venue, that’s off the table.

And it was an idea that the Faths were never comfortable with, as they never wanted to be seen as taking over another sport’s traditional home.

Not that any of it matters, now.