Rago’s return to starting XI has been a major boost for FC Edmonton

Shaun Saiko, left, and Antonio Rago at FCE practice Wednesday at Clarke Stadium.

Before the kickoff of the 2012 NASL season, FC Edmonton’s coaching staff pulled right back Antonio Rago aside to give him some bad news — that he’d lost his place in the starting XI.

Rago, a local product and fan favourite, was almost an automatic choice in coach Harry Sinkgraven’s starting lineups throughout the 2011 season. So, when Rago began the year on the subs’ bench, it was an eyebrow-raiser of a move.

But, over the last two weeks, Rago has reclaimed his starting spot. Before Rago came in as a started, Edmonton was winless in four league games. Since he came back, the team has won its two NASL matches by an aggregate 5-0 count and showed very well in an Amway Canadian Championship semifinal loss to Vancouver at BC Place — in which Rago set up Yashir Pinto’s goal for the Eddies.

Rago brings the kind of intangibles that you don’t find on a stat sheet. Intensity and an ability to judge when is the right time to go forward, and when he needs to remain at his post.

And, through the process, he said he never allowed himself to get bitter.

“It wasn’t a surprise (being dropped),” said Rago after FCE completed the first of two training sessions at Clarke Stadium, Wednesday. “The coaches came to me and told me that I wasn’t playing at the level that they knew I was capable of. They didn’t feel like I had a good preseason. And, to be honest, they were right. But I am a team player. I don’t sit on the bench cheering against my teammates just because I am not playing.”

But being a good team player didn’t mean that he was at peace with the decision.

“Of course I was frustrated. The most frustrating part was not being able to help the team out. But I tried to remain strong in training, to be positive, knowing that a chance was going to come eventually — and it was up to me to take advantage of it.”

But Rago won’t take any credit for the team’s turnaround since he was reintroduced to the starting XI. He said the team’s success is due to the improved play of 11 players on the pitch, not just one man.

Still, anyone who has watched FCE’s games over the last couple of weeks knows that Rago has been excellent in making runs up the right side, and distributing balls to the midfield. After all, even though FC Edmonton is only in its third year as a club and second season in NASL, Rago goes a long way back with two of the team’s attacking players, Shaun Saiko and Matt Lam. Even though the pair were one year ahead of Rago, they played together at the Edmonton Juventus club since they were kids. Rago said he first played with Lam and Saiko when he was eight years old.

And it looks like Lam and Saiko will be the ones linking the forwards to the strikers for a while — as French attacking midfielder Serisay Barthelemy, who injured his calf in the first leg of the ACC semifinal, is out until June.

And Rago, like the rest of the team, is thankful that management decided to bring the team back to Edmonton to train after Saturday’s win in Atlanta, rather than head right to San Antonio. The Eddies face Canadian Kevin Harmse and the surprising expansion Scorpions on Saturday.

“Most of the guys were really tired after the game against Atlanta,” said Rago. (It was the Eddies’ third game in six days) “So it was really nice for us to be able to come home and get some rest, to be able to sleep in our own beds rather than a hotel.”

And, as for San Antonio?

“In this league, anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” said Rago.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.