'Battle of Alberta' match breathes life into hopes for pro soccer in Edmonton

More than 3,200 local soccer fans watched a different kind of Battle of Alberta on a cold, dreary day at Clarke Stadium Sunday in what may be a sign of life for professional soccer in Edmonton.

FC Edmonton’s Academy took on Calgary Foothills FC in the first leg of the Al Classico-Battle of Alberta match up.

Jay Ball, the general manager of FC Edmonton, says Sunday’s turnout was a great sign for professional soccer in Edmonton. (FC Edmonton/Supplied)

Despite Edmonton losing 4-0, the game was a litmus test for city soccer fans, as ownership of the displaced FC Edmonton professional franchise look at whether a team in the Canadian Premier League is viable.

“In spite of absolutely horrible weather — which was nine degrees, it was windy, it was cloudy — we had an incredible outpouring of support,” FC Edmonton general manager Jay Ball told CBC’s Radio Active Monday.

The game came together through conversations among fans and support groups over whether either city is interested in high-level soccer.

With the new Canadian professional soccer league slated to start about one year from now, FC Edmonton co-owner Tom Fath has been exploring joining the league after pulling out of the now-defunct North American Soccer League.

For a CPL team to function here, Clarke Stadium would need some significant upgrades, including almost doubling the amount of seats and upgrading the washrooms and concessions.

The city would have to pay for those upgrades — but with commitment from the city, the ownership could explore Edmonton’s next chapter in professional soccer.

Clarke Stadium will need to almost double its amount of seats to play in the Canadian Premier League. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

CPL a ‘game-changer’

Ball said the CPL is a “big game-changer” for Canadian soccer and its fans.

“It completes the pathway for the kids in grassroots all the way up to a professional level, he said. “They can actually see themselves playing in a professional league in Canada under a Canadian context.”

The CPL would be the first Canadian men’s national soccer league since the Canadian National Soccer League. The CNSL rebranded itself the Canadian Soccer League, but currently has only Ontario-based teams .

The CPL has two teams in the works in Hamilton and Winnipeg, with other cities like Edmonton showing interest but unable to commit.

The previous Canadian soccer league struggled with franchise turnover, but Ball said the new CPL will be different.

It completes the pathway for the kids in grassroots all the way up to a professional level.– Jay Ball

“The league has the full support of the Canadian Soccer Association,” he said. “It has the full support of the grassroot community coast to coast and it’s really a response to the growth and the explosion of the game over the past 15 years.”

Ball said there are approximately 40,000 kids in Edmonton alone who play soccer year-round, not including the surrounding communities.

“That’s a massive amount of kids playing the game,” he said. “The league just completes the circle.”

What ownership now needs, Ball said, is a positive response from fans. As the FC Edmonton ownership group continues to explore the option of revitalizing the soccer franchise, Ball said Sunday’s game was a step forward.

Tom Fath, the co-owner of FC Edmonton, also asked council to help upgrade the stadium. (CBC)

“I think what people demonstrated [Sunday] to ownership and to the rest of the community … is that people in this city want this level of soccer here,” Ball said.

“They want the Canadian Premier League here and they want FC Edmonton to play in the Canadian Premier League.”

The Al Classico Battle of Alberta continues on May 5 in Calgary at the Calgary Soccer Centre. Tickets are free.

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