When it comes to high-level soccer in Edmonton, it really is the best of times and the worst of times at the same time.
In the best of times category: More than 90,000 fans braved below-zero temperatures to see the Canadian men’s national team win two key World Cup qualifiers this past November at Commonwealth Stadium. It was also a chance for the city to welcome home Alphonso Davies, the Bayern Munich fullback who is now ranked as one of the best in the world at his position.
This is the metro area that produced Stephanie Labbé, the soon-to-retire goalkeeper who led the national team to Olympic gold last year.
In the worst of times category: FC Edmonton, the city’s pro soccer team, has been in a struggle to survive. Just before the new year, the league announced it was taking over the operation from the team from owners Tom and Dave Fath. A search is on for a new owner. The team regularly drew crowds, if we can call them that, of less than 1,000 to its Canadian Premier League games this past season. Media coverage of the team has waned.
On Tuesday, the league announced the hire of a new president for the club: Jeff Harrop, former vice president of marketing for the Oilers Entertainment Group. It will be his job to right the ship ahead of the 2022 season.
He says it is time FCE was able to capitalize on the successes of both the women’s and men’s national sides and bring that excitement to the local level.
“In sales, we know that product is king,” he says. “I’m a big believer in our product. The Canadian Premier League offers a great quality of play, and it is only going to get better going forward.”
Harrop was doing some independent consulting work for the CPL, and knew the job opening was there. He says “the sports world is a very small one.” He talks about connecting with the long-time supporters of the club, with season-ticket holders, with sponsors. He speaks about how the team needs to tell the stories of the players. He understands that sports leagues have to follow the lead of the NBA — young fans don’t cheer for crests as much as they cheer for the personalities playing the game. As we speak, he makes it clear that he is in for the long haul. But, is he? If the league hired him to run FC Edmonton, and the league is seeking a new owner for the team, what guarantees are there that he stays?
“I definitely would not put the ‘interim’ tag on it,” Harrop says of his new role. “I would not have taken this job on if I didn’t see myself being here for the long term. But, a new owner could come in and think otherwise.” But he says he has strong support from the league is that all indications are is that he will be president after an ownership transition is made. “Remember that the league has a vested interest in making sure we are successful. This is a priority market for the CPL. There is a strong commitment there from the league.”
And, as for new owners, it’s not something Harrop said he could speak to, specifically — other than that there has been interest both locally and internationally in the team.
Harrop’s hire also means that Len Rhodes, who was acting as a caretaker of the team after the league’s takeover, can step back. Rhodes, the former president of Edmonton’s CFL team, has been overseeing the team till Harrop’s hire. Harrop says Rhodes has “been a great resource” for him.
We have just eight weeks till the 2022 season begins. Alan Koch remains as coach, but the team has seen an exodus of players, including notable names like homegrown defender Amer Didic and Canadian midfielder Fraser Aird. The team has only announced two signings in 2022, the reacquisitions of defender T-Boy Fayia and goalkeeper Darlington Murasiranwa. Two other notable Edmonton-raised players who starred for the team in 2021, Allan Zebie and goalkeeper Connor James, have announced their retirements despite being only 28 and 25 years of age, respectively.
So, who is playing for Edmonton in 2022?
The CPL confirmed that its Player Operations department is working with Koch on building the roster.
“The league is a pretty significant resource,” says Harrop. “They have contacts both nationally and internationally and can help Alan build out the roster… This team is going to be young, going to be fast, and I think it will be uber competitive.”
And, what comes first?
“Right now, it’s the onboarding process, I’m drinking through the fire hose,” says Harrop. “But, with my experience, consulting CPL and with OEG, I feel I have a bit of a head start. I have some familiarity. But the customer is what it’s all about. The customer comes first. And that’s why making connections will be so important.”