Mallan Roberts now has his permanent-resident status. And, if all goes smoothly, he should have a Canadian passport sometime in the summer.
The 20-year-old defender came to Canada as a nine-year-old, as he and his father fled Sierra Leone, a country that had struggled with a long civil war. For more than a decade, Roberts was in Canada as a landed immigrant. So, even though he’s heralded as maybe the best centre-back prospect in the country, he couldn’t play for Canada.
There’s no doubt that, had he been in possession of a passport, Roberts would have been in the last U-20 cycle. Had he been a Canadian citizen, he’d be the talk of soccer fans from coast-to-coast. Yes, he has that much upside.
And, for FC Edmonton fans who had to endure watching a team that struggled on set pieces and suffered from a severe lack of size in the back line in 2012, the paperwork problems meant that Roberts — even though he was a man amongst boys in the Reserve side — couldn’t make the jump. As a landed immigrant, he wouldn’t have been able to cross the border for the NASL road games in the United States. So, he had to stick with the Reserves.
But, getting his residency is more than about crossing the border to play soccer for Roberts. It means that he might be able to see his mother for the first time since he was nine.
“My father and I came to Canada, my mom went to Australia,” he said. “I haven’t been able to see her. I Skype her a lot, and I have a brother and sister there who I’ve never been able to go visit. On Skype, my brother asks me why I don’t come to visit, he doesn’t understand the distance. He thinks I only live five minutes away. Now, hopefully, I’ll be able to take a couple of weeks and be able to see them.”
Roberts is known for a fearless, some might even say, reckless style of defending. Last year, in a match against Edmonton Scottish — the team that would eventually lose in the men’s amateur final — Roberts crashed through forward Vince Bustamente in order to win the ball in the air. Bustamente required stitches and was concussed.
But he doesn’t want to be remembered only as a bruiser. He said he wants to be known as a player who wants the ball on his feet, and can play out of the back. Yes, there have been some growing pains — and some scares for Reserves coach and Eddies assistant Jeff Paulus. But Paulus knows what Roberts brings — the defender was a linchpin on the 2011 NAIT side that Paulus coached to a national college title, going undefeated in the process.
When you first look at Roberts, what strikes you is his size. It’s not that he’s well past the six-foot mark, but that he’s filled out, more like he plays like the other football. Well, in fact, he did. At M.E. Lazerte High School, he played quarterback, wide receiver and safety. He went to Alberta’s Senior Bowl, for high-school football all-stars, as a receiver. After high school, he played for the Edmonton Huskies junior program, and even spent a few weeks training with the CFL Eskimos.
“I still have some friends, some old coaches, who ask me when I’m coming back to play football,” said Roberts.
The defender still has vivid memories of the first time he kicked a soccer ball in Sierra Leone.
“I have a pretty good memory of the place,” he said. “We played a lot, and we played barefoot. I remember coming here (to Canada) and thinking that everyone here is playing with boots on, wow that’s different. But as a kid, I got pushed around a lot.”
And, the way he was bullied on the pitch taught him that he should be the bully.
Roberts hasn’t officially made the jump up to FCE’s first team, but now that the paperwork is in place, you have to think the path is clear for him.
For Canadian soccer fans, it’s a case of being excited about Roberts’ future and, yet, wondering what could have been. Would Roberts’ presence been that little bit that the previous U-20 would have needed to emerge from the CONCACAF Championships and qualify for the U-20 World Cup?
“I’ll be happy if the opportunity comes to play for the national team, at any level. I’d like to go as far as I can in soccer.”
All that needs to happen is the citizenship. And it’s only months away.