‘An excellent future’: Amer Didic’s journey home to FC Edmonton

This article originally ran on Sept. 20, 2019.

EDMONTON – Amer Didic admits that he’s afraid of heights. But for a guy who doesn’t like to be up in the air, he’s spent enough time off the ground.

His dad is a helicopter pilot and, growing up, the FC Edmonton centre back and former USL all-star took a lot of trips in the chopper.

His dad spends a lot of time in the north doing helicopter runs, bringing personnel to oil fields or fighting forest fires. He’ll be gone for the better part of a month then come home for a week.

“I’ve been up in the helicopter a lot when I was younger,” said Didic, who was one of FC Edmonton’s prized pre-season signings.

“It’s a lot different than an airplane, it’s a lot more fun. But I don’t want to learn anything about it (flying), I’m a little bit scared of heights. But when I’m up there it gets better and better each time.”

The six-foot-four centre back came to Canada while still an infant with his family as they left what would become Bosnia and Herzegovina and the ravages of civil war. So, outside of a couple of trips back to the Balkans when he was in his junior-high years, Didic’s childhood memories are only of Edmonton — and he arrived at FC Edmonton’s academy as a midfielder with lots of promise. The Eddies were an NASL club that was just getting established, but then-academy head Jeff Paulus saw something in the kid — and it wasn’t in the middle of the park.

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“When I brought him into the academy, he was a holding midfield player,” explained Paulus, who now coaches the Eddies in the Canadian Premier League. “And I just saw these attributes and thought, ‘nah, this guy needs to be a centre back.’ He’ll be a ball-playing centre back, which we don’t have in our country. You don’t see enough of it, certainly the way I want to play football. So, we moved him to centre back.”

From Edmonton, Didic was offered the chance to play at Baker University in Kansas City. Baker isn’t an Akron or a UCLA or a Wake Forest, the sort of American schools you think of when it comes to producing players who are first round picks in the MLS SuperDraft. Baker is a small NAIA school, many divisions removed from the top tiers of the NCAA. If you think of an Akron as the Manchester City of American college soccer, Baker would be Fleetwood Town.

But, in many soccer careers, there’s a thing about being in the right place at the right time. In 2016, Didic completed his collegiate career with an MVP campaign in the Heart of America Conference just as Sporting Kansas City had just brought in Canadian Marc Dos Santos to coach its USL affiliate, Swope Park Rangers. Dos Santos, through his career, has been known to give Canadian prospects the chances to show their stuff.

So, Didic walked on to Swope Park Rangers as an undrafted trialist, and by the end of the year he was a USL all-star and earned callups to Sporting Kansas City to play in the CONCACAF Champions League.

“This past year, from the first day of training camp to the last day of the season, his development was terrific,” Dos Santos said as he departed Swope Park at the end of the 2016 season. “Here was a kid who had gone to FC Edmonton’s Academy and had moved on to Baker, a small college. He came to Kansas City on a trial. He goes on to play in a USL final and gets called up for three Champions League games. I think he has the tools to have an excellent future in this game.”

Photo courtesy of Amer Didic.
Photo courtesy of Amer Didic.

Paid his dues at Swope Park Rangers

The myth is that Didic, after being the big fish in the small pond that was Baker University, walked into a USL training camp with head held high and took a starting job at Swope Park from day one.

But the truth is that Didic struggled with his confidence, and he admits there were lots of down times when he trialled as an undrafted player with Swope Park. He and fellow Canadian Johnny Grant — who, like Didic, now calls the CPL home — were with Swope Park for the 2016 Desert Diamond Cup, an Arizona pre-season tournament that featured a couple of USL teams and six MLS clubs.

“I wasn’t too sure if the pro game was in my future, if you know what I mean,” Didic admitted. “Thankfully through my college coach, Nate Houser, he had some connections there with the Swope Park team and got me a trial there. I went in there with nothing to lose. I remember going to (Arizona) and I looked around and I’m marking (MLS star) Kei Kamara in a game. It took me a while to get my feet down into the ground and get the chance to play.

“I still remember that game and it kind of went on from there. And I was thinking to myself that a month ago I was in an NAIA school playing soccer. It was a learning experience because, during that couple of weeks there, there were some downs too, that people didn’t really know about.”

And he credits Dos Santos, who now coaches the Whitecaps, for helping him make great strides.

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“Marc? He was tremendous. He gave me the confidence to be where I am today, and he and Nikola Popovic (the then-assistant at Swope Park who currently coaches the USL’s Ottawa Fury), they believed in me when I didn’t really believe in myself,” Didic said. “They pushed me and gave me the tools and said to me ‘you can do this, you’ve just got to put in that work and focus on yourself.’”

In 2017, Didic was promoted to the Sporting Kansas City roster, though he spent most of the next two years playing with Swope Park. He did play in the U.S. Open Cup for the MLS side, though.

“It’s a really well-run club, really great staff, great coaching, just the whole overall experience of playing in Kansas City was really beneficial to me as an athlete but also as a person. So, I’d say the whole experience in general, training and being with a great group of guys,” Didic offered.

But he was frustrated not to get the chance to play in an MLS match.

“Obviously, it was my goal there to get those MLS games. It is what it is, you keep fighting. It’s still my goal to play at a higher level but it’s something I have to work at everyday,” Didic stated.

Still, he did get a call-up to Canada’s under-23 team, and he was also named to a senior national-team roster, though he didn’t play. He said that, as his family fled Bosnia, being a Canadian means a heck of a lot to him.

“Representing your country, I did it with the U-23s, that first game, there’s such a sense of pride, knowing that you’re out there with a select group of people in Canada for your age. And, yeah, your goal is to always represent the nation, especially for my family because of the situation coming to this country, with Canada being our new home. It’s that type of pride that my family and I share. It’s definitely something I plan on achieving one day, but you can’t think too much about it,” Didic said.

Amer Didic training with Canada in Sept. 2017. (Canada Soccer).
Amer Didic training with Canada in Sept. 2017. (Canada Soccer).

Paulus: He’s a ‘no-brainer’ for CanMNT

Paulus thinks it’s a “no-brainer” that Didic will one day be on the Canadian team’s back line.

“This is a player, to me he’s the modern centre half. He’s six-foot-four, he does not get beat in aerial challenges. He’s dominant in the air in one-v-one duels. But he can get the ball on the ground and I’ve not seen a player who’s a central defender in the NASL or the CPL that can ping a diagonal ball like Amer Didic,” Paulus offered.

Didic admits he’s had no contact with John Herdman, who took over as the coach of the national side in early 2018 (It was Octavio Zambrano called him up to the Canadian senior side in late 2017.)

When FC Edmonton was announced as a Canadian Premier League side, Paulus had Didic at the top of his wish-list. But Didic was still with Sporting Kansas City at the time, so the odds seemed very long when it came to repatriating his old academy pupil. The odds were even longer when Didic signed with San Antonio of the USL in 2019. But, early in the season, Didic and his USL club mutually agreed to part ways — he declined to go into detail about what happened.

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So, all of a sudden, Paulus’s top target was available: “It’s a kid I really care about, so I always keep tabs on him, what he’s doing.”

“It was pretty quick, it happened really fast,” Didic recalled. “It all happened within a week or so while I was in Texas. I’m thankful for the opportunity Jeff gave me at the time. Playing every day is what I want to do.”

Playing every day hasn’t been how it’s worked out, though. Didic set up a goal with a flicked header in FCE’s first-ever CPL match, a 2-1 win at Valour FC. But, he’s missed a handful of games in both the Spring and Fall season — and you can wonder where FCE might be in the standings had Didic not torn his groin. Would the Eddies have given up three set-piece goals to York9 in the Canadian Championship loss had Didic, a towering presence in the back, been able to play?

“Coming in, I felt good, then the groin came pretty bad. I had a pretty bad tear in the groin and never could get it to heal fully, then it came back for a couple of games,” Didic said.

It hasn’t been an easy season, but you’d still have Didic at the top of your list when it comes to CPL centre backs you’d think might earn a national-team call-up in the near future. His career hasn’t hit peak altitude, yet.

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