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Hurry up and wait

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Mallan Roberts is a man of two nations, but he only officially belongs to one of them.

He’s been living in Edmonton since 2001, yet Canada still isn’t officially his home country. Even though FC Edmonton brought him upfrom the academy to the pro ranks back in 2013, he still has to get special paperwork so he can travel across the border to the United States with his team.

And, last year, he was strongly considered for a Canadian national team call-up; but there was one rather large problem problem that got in the way — he was still waiting on Canadian immigration officials to give him a passport.

It’s 2014, he’s still waiting. When Roberts takes the field for FCE Edmonton, he’s listed as a Sierra Leone import, not a Canadian.

As he waits for Canada to approve his request for citizenship, he wonders. He knows that, had he been a citizen, he would already have represented Canada at the junior and men’s national team levels. But a man can’t wait forever. A soccer career is a fleeting thing. And, even though Roberts is just 22 years of age, the FCE centre back debates whether or not his best chance to play for a national side will not be with Canada, but with Sierra Leone.

“I’ve lived most of my life in Canada,” says Roberts, standing just a few feet away from the artificial surface of Clarke Stadium, FCE’s home. “Any player, really, wants to represent their country. Whether it’s Sierra Leone or Canada, I’d want to represent my country. I know my mom would rather me play for Sierra Leone. My dad is here, and he said he will support me, regardless. But, when the time comes, I’ll need to make that decision.

“I can’t really simulate the emotion [if Sierra Leone’s national coach called], because it hasn’t happened yet. But it would need to be something I really would need to think about.”

The Canada/Sierra Leone decision could have come last year. Roberts had expected to have his citizenship greenlighted some time during his rookie campaign with the Eddies. And FC Edmonton’s coach, Colin Miller, was doing double duty, as he was also the interim boss of the men’s national team. Miller was in charge when Canada faced Costa Rica at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in May of 2013. Miller wanted to call up Roberts for the Costa Rica match, but the passport wouldn’t come in time.

Really, had Roberts had the passport, he would have been an easy pick to play for Canada’s U-17s and U-20s when he was eligible. He would have been promoted to the Eddies’ senior roster earlier than the 2013 season, too. But the Eddies had to wait for Roberts to get his permanent-resident status so he would be allowed into the United States. At the time, the Eddies were the only Canadian team in the league — so a carrying a salaried roster player who couldn’t go to America was pointless.

And why were so many in the Canadian soccer scene high on Roberts? His fierce and fearless nature. This was a kid who was a provincial football all-star — and, yes we are talking about the other football, the one with the helmets and the pointy ball. He even spent a few weeks training with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. He still gets pestered by friends, wondering if he’ll go back to wearing the helmet and the pads.

“Yeah, I still get emails and my friends play jokes,” says Roberts. “But this is my passion. I am not going anywhere.”

Mallan Roberta leaps so he can beat Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ forward Fafa Picault to the ball in NASL action from the 2014 season. PHOTO: TONY LEWIS/FC EDMONTON

While Roberts is devoted to soccer, he plays the centre back position with the mentality of a linebacker. Case in point: While still playing for the FCE reserves, in 2012, Roberts went up for a cross, got there late, and collided with Vince Bustamente of Alberta Major League’s Edmonton Scottish. Bustamente suffered a concussion and received a nasty gash on thehead that required eight stitches to close.

And, anyone who has seen Roberts play in the NASL knows that there is still polish needed, but the strength and size can’t be underestimated. FCE has him listed at six-foottwo, 185 pounds, but looking at him you’d think that those numbers can’t be right.

In 2013, Roberts was promoted from FC Edmonton’s reserves to the full senior squad. His stock was so high, that Miller opted not to sign centre back Paul Hamilton, who in 2012 was a member of the NASL’s season-ending Best XI squad. Miller had brought in Albert Watson from Belfast’s famed Linfield club to bring experience to the centre back position; he would become a role model for Roberts. Watson, a former Northern Ireland youth international, was named to the NASL’s Best XI at the end of the 2013 campaign.

Roberts was initially slotted to be a depth player, as the Eddies had secured the services of Carlyle Mitchell, on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps, for what they thought would be the duration of the 2013 soccer season. Mitchell was to partner with Watson, while Roberts deputized. But, an injury crisis forced the Whitecaps to recall Mitchell before the midway point of the NASL season, and Roberts began to see regular minutes.

Soon after the Mitchell recall, Roberts scored his first ever professional goal, against Minnesota United FC.

When Roberts played, it was clear he was fearless out there. But that fearlessness could also come back to bite him, as he’d sometimes get sucked out of position or pick up needless cards by chasing the quarry he could have left well alone. Discipline was what Roberts needed.

But Watson says he is amazed by his partner’s learning curve.

“He has definitely improved since last year, when he exploded onto the scene,” says Watson. “He is still so young. But he’s got great athleticism about him. He has aggression. He has everything you want in a centre back, he just has to tidy up some small things in his game, like moving the ball quicker and getting on the right side of the striker. But he has already improved so much over last year.

“I wish that I had that kind of size and aggression when I was that age.”

Roberts says it’s a matter of making small refinements to his game.

“It’s just little things like attacking the ball, knowing the right time to go into a tackle, stepping to the man, just basic guidance from the first minute to the 90th minute. The little things. The one that really sticks with me is the intensity. From minute one to minute 90, I’m sure you’ve heard it from Colin before, he likes to call me Johnny Anvil. I Googled that guy and I still don’t know who he is! I guess I like to be more calm and composed and Albert is more intense.”

(I Googled Johnny Anvil, and I found the Marvel Comics super villain who, partnered with Leroy Jackson, gave the Incredible Hulk a run for his money. The key is that Anvil and Jackson needed each other in order to take on the Hulk; maybe there’s an analogy there for Roberts and Watson.)

But Roberts hasn’t quite got “calm and composed” down yet. There’s still shades of the player who broke Bustamente’s head open in 2012. And, in 2014, Roberts was handed a two-game suspension from the NASL for kicking an opponent in the face in a draw against the San Antonio Scorpions. It wasn’t that it was intentional; but Roberts tried to catch an opponent from behind, and his foot came up. Roberts committed the foul nowhere near his team’s goal; he was simply hungry to win the ball back. But it was an example case of him needing to realize that it wasn’t the right time and place to make a rash challenge.

Cursed in the Cup?

Roberts has also fallen on the wrong side of the officials in the Voyageurs’ Cup.

In 2013, in a semifinal against the Whitecaps, the Eddies were leading 2-1 in the first leg when Roberts was called for tripping Camilo in the penalty area. The game changed and the Whitecaps won the first leg 3-2. The replays showed that Roberts, who was playing because Mitchell was ineligible to play against his parent club, made no contact with Camilo who, as any veteran would do, found a way to exploit the rookie.

“The man’s known around his league for being a little bit of a leapfrogger,” said Roberts after the match. “But, from what I saw, I can say he’s a true professional.”

In 2014, the Eddies and Montreal Impact were tied 4-4 late into he second leg of their semifinal at Stade Saputo. But, the Eddies had the edge in away goals and were set to shock the MLS side. Six minutes of time were added on. And, in that sixth minute, referee Drew Fischer ruled that Roberts handled a free kick in the box. The ball was deflected just a couple of feet away from Roberts. And, Roberts, fearing a handball call, had put his arms behind his back. But the handball call was made, anyway.

“The guys in the dressing room are broken-hearted,” Miller said after the match. “We knew we deserved better from the game. We are devastated. The players are devastated and the technical staff are devastated. I feel so bad for our fans and our owner.

“He [Mallan] had his hands behind his back and the ball’s gone off the label on his jersey. That’s never a penalty. The funny thing is, I thought Drew was having a good game up to that point. But there was also six minutes of time added on. As soon as the six minutes went up, you go the feeling that something was up.”

So, two straight years, two straight controversial calls that went against Roberts.

No Canadian passport, and the Canadian Championship has it in for him, as well.

“I don’t believe in black magic, I don’t believe in voodoo,” Roberts says. “If you want to talk about voodoo and stuff like that, you go and talk to Tomi [FC Edmonton striker Tomi Ameobi], because he’s Nigerian, they’re known for that kind of stuff. I’m from Sierra Leone, we’re more peaceful, we don’t do the voodoo stuff.”

The Journey

While he hasn’t had to choose between Sierra Leone or Canada when it comes to national- team allegiance, there will no doubt be those who go on to Canadian soccer message boards and Twitter who will criticize Roberts if he chooses to go with the African nation in which he was born. It’s the nature of Canadian fans, beaten down by years of poor results, to feel that everyone and everything is against them.

You can hardly blame them.


The irony is that Roberts hasn’t set foot in Sierra Leone since September of 2001.

Roberts came to Canada with his father, Charles. Mallan was nine. But he pair left Mallan’s mother behind in Sierra Leone. She would eventually move to Australia and begin a new life.

“I remember everything from since I was little,” says Roberts. “And I speak to my mom all the time and she always reminds me, I’m fortunate to have memories of back home. It was a lot different than here. Here you wear boots and such and such. Back home, not everyone was as fortunate as some others. So we didn’t have boots, we didn’t have turf, we didn’t have grass. We just played with what we had but we were so ignorant to anything else that it was just, well, whatever. It was fun back then. Coming here (to Canada), I realized, ‘wow, people here are really spoiled.’ But I’m grateful. I guess it made me a better player, having to play on surfaces like that (in Sierra Leone).”

Roberts speaks to his mom, Ramatu Bundu, but not in person. In fact, he hasn’t been in the same room with her since he was in Sierra Leone. Canadian immigration rules prevent him from leaving to visit her in Australia. He keeps in touch with his mom and her new family through Skype.

“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.”

Now here’s the irony. If Roberts can’t leave for Australia, he actually might have to wait for a Canadian passport before he could play for Sierra Leone, if he chose to go that route.

“I haven’t been back since I left,” Roberts says. “September, I remember our flight got delayed when 9/11 happened. We actually weren’t able to leave the country. But, I guess you could say a miracle happened, maybe Tomi did some good voodoo and now I am here.”

For Roberts, getting that citizenship is about a lot more than furthering his pro soccer career. It would allow him the chance to reunite with his mom. It would allow him to see family members who he’s only been able to, ahem, “see” over online connections.

Mallan Roberts needs a country. And it isn’t the country in which he was born — it’s the country in which he lives.

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