FC Edmonton head coach never stopped improving and learning every step of his unique journey
The Canadian Premier League’s mandate is to give Canadians a chance to pursue their soccer dreams at home.
That is usually expressed in terms of players, but Tuesday it applied to FC Edmonton’s first head coach of the CPL era.
Jeff Paulus has paid his dues at the club and through the years at many levels of Canadian soccer. FC Edmonton felt he was the perfect choice to be their head coach for the 2019 inaugural season.
“We talk about the CPL as a league by Canadians for Canadians and that certainly applies to me,” Paulus said. “I know we have good Canadian coaches throughout this country that are similar to me — who maybe didn’t play professionally, but who played the game their entire life, who have coached the game their entire life and really just want an opportunity. I’ve been fortunate enough to get the opportunity, but this league is for people just like me who have put in the time and have been waiting for an opportunity to come along.
“This has come along for me, but I hope that this going to come along for so many Canadians as assistant coaches and eventually head coaches as well. This is special.”
The 48-year-old admits that if you told him 20 years ago when he began coaching that he would be in charge of a professional top flight team in Canada he would have thought you were nuts, but over those two decades he never stopped working hard and never stopped learning.
When Paulus talks about his coaching career, he consistently focuses on the mentors he met and what he learned every step of the way.
For example, when the opportunity to be a part of the Prairie National Training Centre (NTC) in Edmonton, Paulus didn’t hesitate despite already having plenty on his plate.
“I spent the first two years volunteering my time and I would go every day and I would pick up cones and I would take notes and listen to the wisdom of Bert Goldberger. That was a two-year education for me before I was hired on as an official staff member at NTC,” said Paulus of the Canada Soccer hall of fame coach Goldberger.
“I put in the time, but never in million years did I think there would be a professional head coaching waiting for me. And that’s not that long ago. It’s a huge opportunity for me.”
Paulus was born in Toronto, the eldest of the three brothers. His bother James was on a strong team in Wexford coached by Tom Croft.
“Being at my brother’s training sessions and his games and watching Tom Croft work and the way he dealt with players, I think that initially piqued my interest in giving back to the game that way,” Paulus said of the current FC Durham academy manager.
Paulus was good enough to play for Seneca College in Toronto, but when an injury cut his season short he realized that the only reason he was taking classes was to keep playing. He wasn’t getting much out of his program, so at 19 he changed directions and joined the Navy.
“My Papa was in the Navy, so I decided to change my life around and go that route,” Paulus said. “It definitely grows you up when you’re young. It taught me a lot about discipline, first and foremost. If you’re struggling to get through a fitness course or any of the training you have to do, it teaches you to dig down deep and find some places inside that maybe you didn’t think you could get to, to overcome a challenge.”
While he learned a lot about himself, Paulus also learned a lot about leadership, building relationships and how to inspire dedication.
“I sailed on a few different ships and had a few different captains. You experience poor leaders that many of the men on the ship didn’t want to work for — someone who wasn’t a good leader and didn’t inspire confidence… versus captains who were fantastic,” said Paulus before explaining the kind of positive leadership he experienced. “On a Christmas Day I couldn’t go home, I had to man the ship. The captain of our ship brought his young family onboard and had Christmas dinner with us. When I left the Navy I spoke to him about it and he said ‘if I expect my men to work on Christmas Day I should be prepared to do the same myself.’”
Leading Seaman Paulus earned his first coaching experience at a Naval base as he played and coached a team. He was in the Navy for seven years before attending Dalhousie and then Acadia where he finished an education degree.
When Paulus went to take his first Canada Soccer coaching certification in the mid-90s, it was run by future national team head coach — and current HFX Wanderers FC boss — Stephen Hart.
“His enthusiasm and knowledge of the game was kind of what gave me a passion to want to learn more,” Paulus said. “I was quite in awe of Stephen at the time. That’s really got me interested in learning as much as I possibly could.”
He moved to Edmonton in 2004 after his first wife transferred to the Alberta capital.
He interviewed with Graham Wood at St. Albert Soccer and immediately got to coach their under-14 Tier I boys team that first summer.
Wood was also the head coach of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and he took Paulus on as an assistant that fall. Two years later Paulus was the head coach of the NAIT Ooks and also worked as the head coach and academy director at Paul Kane High School in St. Albert. He led the Ooks to three Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference titles and one CCAA national title.
“Once I took over as head coach then you have to start recruiting your own players and I learned a lot about player scouting and recruiting, finding talent through video. I had to learn to pick players that would match the style of play that I have,” Paulus said. “I can’t underscore the importance of NAIT for my development as a coach for senior players.”
In 2011, Paulus joined FC Edmonton as an assistant coach and as the technical director of the new FC Edmonton Academy. At the time Harry Sinkgraven was FC Edmonton’s manager and Hans Schrijver was also on staff. Sinkgraven had played more than 300 professional matches in the Netherlands and had managed FC Zwolle. Schrijver had also played professionally in the Netherlands, had been an assistant at FC Groningen and had coached the Dutch U17 and U20 teams.
“They really honed my skills as an academy director and an academy coach more than any one other experience in my life. Their attention to detail and technique was so important,” Paulus said. “They wanted to teach Dutch football. I learned about tactical periodization and fitness periodization. I learned things that were brand new to me at that point. Harry and Hans were significant.”
Colin Miller came in and replaced Sinkgraven in 2012 and the former Canadian captain also influenced his assistant coach.
“Colin taught me about the game of football. He taught me what professional football was like — the culture of the game, the passion, the emotion,” Paulus said. “The game can sometimes be cruel. You generally deal with players you like and have relationships with, but the game becomes a business and sometimes you don’t get to work with these players again and they move on. He taught me about that.”
Paulus believed there was a lot of quality in the North American Soccer League. He said that if you took the designated players away from Major League Soccer teams, the top teams in the NASL were right there in terms of talent with the teams in MLS.
“I learned a lot over (Miller’s) six years,” Paulus said. “I can read the game better. The NASL was a good league. There were strong players on every team. You had to learn fast what that kind of player looked like.”
He hopes those varied mentors and experiences in academies, at the high school, college and pro level will help him get FC Edmonton off the ground.
“For me I want quick players and technically they have to be a good player. For me a central defender has to be able to play out of the back. I’m looking for those attributes as well,” Paulus said. “The biggest thing I watch for (on video) is what they do away from the ball — defensively and offensively. I want to see their knowledge of the game and if they’re getting into good positions, breaking lines, playing in-between the channels — are they doing these things when they don’t have the ball to get on it?”
Currently he is the only head coach in the CPL who has a general manager above him, but Paulus likes the dynamic he and Jay Ball have together and feels it makes the club stronger.
“At the end of the day I think it will be my decision on players, but Jay and I have formed a good friendship. Jay reads people really well and he’s a good accessor of personalities and I’m going to use that,” Paulus said. “Any player we bring here has to be able to play football, but for me it’s some of the intangibles when it comes to Player A versus Player B. I want to create a family in this locker room. I want to make sure the chemistry is right. Jay is definitely an asset for me on that side of things. We’ll do it together, but (founder and co-owner Tom Fath) has final say. I will present players to Tom and get his feedback as well to make it work.”
After spending Tuesday doing media interviews after his hiring, Paulus had an academy training session to get to. He admits there are still details to be worked out from the league about how players will be allocated, but he will start evaluating talent immediately.
One thing he is already confident about is the fact that there is plenty of talent in Edmonton and Alberta to tap for the club.
“If there’s one thing I have learned working with these kids here in Edmonton at this pro academy, is that our Canadian kids can play professionally,” Paulus said. “I have a deep-seated belief that young Canadian kids can compete and play in the CPL, but even in higher leagues as well. All they need is an opportunity. We tend to not give that because we’re so worried about wins and losses and maintaining our jobs as managers that maybe you don’t want to take a chance on a young player. But I believe that given the chance these players will do well and excel for us and our country.”
Paulus has had success at NAIT and at the FC Edmonton academy — where 14 players have graduated to professional teams — while trying to play as fast, skilled brand of soccer. He feels that approach is a good way to develop young talent and he wants to bring in players who will fit that attractive model of play.
“I think I know the kind of player that the CPL will be able to attract and the kind of players we need to contend for a title,” Paulus said.
Paulus will remain in charge of the FC Edmonton Academy for the time being. The club said that academy staffing decisions will be made at a later date.
FC Edmonton will be sending their under-17 academy team to the SuperCupNI tournament, formerly known as the Milk Cup, at the end of July. The elite youth tournament in Northern Ireland has featured a number of current English stars — including Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford — over the years, as well as Wayne Rooney, Sergio Busquets and Jozy Altidore to name but a few.
FC Edmonton are in the top division and will face academies from France and the United States as well as a Irish side.
“It’s a fantastic competition. I’m excited to take them over there and see where we’re at as a program because we’re taking some very good players over there,” Paulus said. “That’s on the immediate horizon and I will obviously be starting to look at players here right away. I will probably start that (Wednesday).”