At 24 years old, Ajay Khabra never played for a club outside his hometown until now. He spent five years with the University of Alberta, and his first pro deal was his stint last season with FC Edmonton.
“I’m looking to try and get out of my comfort zone a little bit, right? I’ve been in Edmonton my whole life,” Khabra told CanPL.ca.
“I’ve been playing with coaches that I’ve been familiar with, that I’ve known of and had some sort of prior (experience) with. It’ll be nice to be living somewhere else, and then also playing somewhere else, just kind of getting out of my comfort zone, learning from brand new coaches. I’ll look to kind of expand my game a little bit.”
Although he had conversations with the Eddies about renewing his contract for 2020, it became clear to Khabra that staying in his home province wasn’t going to work out. At the same time, in a stroke of serendipity, Atlético Ottawa was in the process of building a brand new squad, and thus needed someone to pull the strings in midfield.
“He is the casualty of the salary cap,” FCE coach Jeff Paulus said of Khabra in early March. “I wanted him back this year, I want him at this club, he knows how I feel about him as a player and as a person. I’m absolutely gutted that I couldn’t make it work out.”
Khabra was an anchor at the heart of Edmonton’s lineup in 2019, playing 24 games in the CPL’s first year. Although the Eddies didn’t finish as high up the ladder as they might’ve hoped, Khabra was probably one of the more underrated central midfielders in the league. Indeed, according to Sportlogiq, he was at the very top of the CPL in passing and relief receptions, suggesting a knack for both moving the ball and moving into space without it.
“I’m looking to be an intellectual player,” Khabra answered when asked where he sees himself fitting into Ottawa’s squad. “I think I’m best at a box-to-box role, but at the same time I think I’m able to play in multiple areas, fulfill multiple roles.”
With, perhaps, a larger role in Ottawa, Khabra’s stock could certainly rise, especially if he does command the centre with his new club. With fellow central midfielder Tevin Shaw set to join him in perhaps a more defensive position, Khabra may have more freedom to roam — and thus perhaps a greater role in the club’s buildup play.
It’s worth noting that Khabra isn’t leaving Edmonton for just any club; Ottawa may be an expansion side, but Eddies coach Jeff Paulus is on record saying he considers the new club to be his biggest rival, with footballing animosity between the two cities dating well back to the NASL days of the Ottawa Fury.
Now, with one soldier who’s crossed to the other side, there’s a concrete link between the two clubs. Khabra, who found himself expendable at FCE, is keenly looking forward to making his return to Clarke Field wearing Federal Red.
“I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Khabra admitted. “Not necessarily against FC Edmonton, but I’ll be trying to do as well as I can in Ottawa. It’s gonna be, personally for me, nice coming back to play in Edmonton, in that game for sure. Just from what Jeff said, it’ll build the rivalry into a little bit more and it’ll make things a little bit more exciting.”
Khabra hasn’t yet scored his first goal in the Canadian Premier League. It would be fitting, perhaps, if it were to come in his first trip back to Edmonton.