EDMONTON—If you build it, they will come.
At least that’s what FC Edmonton is banking on, after it asked the city Wednesday to fix up Clarke Stadium so it can bring professional soccer back to town by joining the Canadian Premier League.
One of the issues? The facility is already home to high school football, and functions as a backup field for Edmonton’s CFL team, the Eskimos.
Eighteen panellists showed up at the community and public services committee meeting on Wednesday — so many, city officials had to move the meeting to council chambers — for a debate that pitted the soccer community against football fans.
In the end, city tried to appease both sides.
The committee has asked administration to look into the capital budget to enhance Clarke Stadium as well as work with both FC Edmonton and the Edmonton Eskimos on venue-sharing issues.
“I think there is an appetite for it. A Canadian soccer league makes a lot of sense and it will resonate in a powerful way with Edmontonians,” said Mayor Don Iveson.
“This motion captures the desire to work with everybody, to find a successful path forward to accommodate the professional soccer at Clarke without making it impossible for our other valued users to also be successful.”
A report presented to council listed nine guidelines to get Clarke Stadium up to league standards. They include FC Edmonton becoming the primary tenant of the stadium, spectator seating to be increased from 4,153 to 7,000 seats, and the stadium getting out of current food and beverage contracts with the city.
Jay Ball, business manager for FC Edmonton, says the decision to join the Canadian Premier League will bring in more fans as rivalries between national teams will be much stronger than the club experienced when it was in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
“In previous seasons when the club hosted teams like Miami and Puerto Rico, it did not connect with our fans,” he said. “If there are teams like Winnipeg and Calgary in the Canadian Premier League, it is so much easier to hate them. That is what connects our fans and brings our fans together.”
FC Edmonton suspended operations in November after its founders, brothers Tom and Dave Fath, announced the team was leaving NASL due to low attendance at games.
The Fath brothers joined the NASL at the league’s founding meeting in November 2009, with FC Edmonton beginning exhibition play in 2010.
The club played its first official league match on April 9, 2011 against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, earning a 2-1 victory. The team played more than 200 league games and made it to the postseason twice in seven seasons.
Shaun Lowther of Alberta Soccer says Edmonton’s successful hosting of the FIFA Women’s World Cup coupled with the city looking to bring the Men’s World Cup here in 2026 are proof the community values soccer.
“It’s very important that our young soccer players understand that this city supports soccer” he said.
He said with 30,000 amateur soccer players in Edmonton, the city should not “fall behind the rest of Canada” in creating a professional soccer team.
Tom Fath, co-owner of FC Edmonton, says it’s “great to hear the supporters pressing the need for Edmonton to be in Canadian Premier League.”
But not everyone was supportive.
The Eskimos’ president and CEO Len Rhodes opposed the request, saying his club needs Clarke Stadium for practice space when Commonwealth is not available.
“We have to have practice at that facility. If you take that away, well, we can’t be a viable professional sports team,” he said.
Tim Enger of Football Alberta says that the changes to Clarke would also impact high school football.
“There are only four venues in our city and Clarke is a very important one,” he said.
He said Clarke Stadium has all the requirements for high school football — four dressing rooms, a spotting booth for the coaches, and video.
“There is a lot of investment in all of those things.”
Fath says despite the pushback, he believes the dialogue is necessary to “work through the issues.”
“Because all of us are in it for the community and all of us are in it not only for our sport and the improvement of our community, but also for the youth,” he said.
He says having a Canadian Premier League team in the city will give younger athletes something to aspire to.
The Canadian Premier League was established last April at the annual meeting of the Canadian Soccer Association.
The league expects to have eight teams. Winnipeg and Hamilton signed up last year; the rest of the teams have yet to be announced.
The Canadian Premier League is set to debut in spring 2019 and the deadline for teams to express interest is mid-April.
Although the window to get an approval from the city in order to submit the team for CPL was small, Fath says they still decided to give it a go.
“We wouldn’t be this far along if we didn’t think this would have a chance,” he said.