No league, then leave

KEITH BRADFORD -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 6:53 AM ET

He was born and raised in Edmonton.

But former Edmonton Aviators head coach Ross Ongaro has a stark message for up-and-coming local soccer players.

"If you want soccer, don't stay around here," said Ongaro, who has been teaching and coaching at Archbishop O'Leary high school since the Aviators crashed and burned. "The growth of soccer here is tremendous. The quality of play is improving.

"But you get to the under-18 level and if soccer is still your goal, you are wasting your time.

"We are back to the same state I was in when I was in Grade 12. I had to leave. I went to the States on a scholarship."

Ongaro has been the public face of Edmonton soccer for the last few decades with teams like the Brick Men and Drillers. And that's meant taking a lot of heat for their demise - from fans and the media.

But his frustration at the failure of efforts to bring pro soccer here reached new heights with the collapse of the Aviators.

"Groups have tried and tried and tried but at this point it doesn't seem like (pro soccer) is feasible," he said.

"It all comes down to money and numbers. It has nothing to do with the ability of local players or the ability of the teams."

Ongaro says he was told the Aviators had a three-year business plan, so to see them fold after only a few months was "ridiculous."

But he says government support for Edmonton soccer has been missing for too long.

"Even in '83 with the Eagles we were still paying rent," he said. "The Brick Men were paying to be in Telus Field.

"I'm paying taxes right now to help the football team stay. It's great that we have a football team. But I look back and I think, 'Was soccer ever important to the extent that they wanted it to stay here?' "

Ongaro believes the formation of a Canadian soccer league would not only give talented young players a chance to develop, but the national team the tools to compete.

The chances of that happening any time soon are somewhere between slim and none. But rumours of a plan to bring pro soccer back to Edmonton are gathering momentum.

University of Alberta Golden Bears coach Len Vickery says there's been some interest, but a wealthy backer is still being sought. He thinks it might take a couple of years before pro soccer makes a comeback - just don't bank on Ongaro coaching the team.

"I've never given up on Edmonton.

"But I think unless (the team) is community-owned and sponsored, and supported by our governments and part of a league, it's going to be very difficult," said Ongaro.

"At this point I've told (longtime sidekick and former Aviators GM) Joe Petrone I'm not interested if somebody else wanted to (come here). But I would love for Edmonton to do something - to get a pro team back. It would give our local players a chance to go to another level."

Ongaro's future may lie in coaching south of the border, where he still has a lot of contacts from his playing and coaching days.

Although he's made a career out of trying to make soccer work here, it sounds like a change might be as good as a rest.

"I was born and raised in Edmonton," he said. "There's a lot of frustration being involved in soccer around here. You are constantly fighting with groups that, in my mind, don't really want soccer.

"To leave to go somewhere that appreciated soccer wouldn't be a bad thing."


Videos

Photos