New roof leagues better - The Province

Opens the door for Whitecaps to move up to MLS

Jim Jamieson

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, the renovation of B.C. Place Stadium means they no longer have to be left behind in the race to secure an expansion franchise in North America's top professional league -- Major League Soccer.

An appropriate venue is all that had been keeping the Whitecaps from joining MLS and the swamping of owner Greg Kerfoot's proposed soccer-specific waterfront stadium in a sea of red tape has kept them on the sidelines for several years as cities such as Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia joined the new pro league.

Now the Whitecaps can be full suitors for one of two final franchises available -- and you can bet MLS wants them in. MLS is at 14 teams currently -- with Seattle coming in next year and Philly in 2010 -- and says it will stop at 18 teams.

"The initial benefit is that we can be back in the game on the MLS opportunity," said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. "If things had stayed the way they were, we would have missed the boat. But the other thing is, seeing the plans for the building, it's quite exciting. It seems like it will be a state-of-the-art building, they are prepared to reconfigure the seating to bring it closer to the field, they will improve the concessions and of course the retractable roof so you're outdoors on a nice summer night."

Lenarduzzi said the Whitecaps are working towards signing a five-year lease with B.C. Pavilion Corp., but that doesn't mean the waterfront stadium won't continue to be pursued.

"It's taken us five years to get essentially nowhere now," said Lenarduzzi. "So we may as well concern ourselves with the things we can control and still strive to get the approvals [for the waterfront venue]."

Lenarduzzi said discussions with the MLS are in the preliminary stage, but doesn't believe there are any hard deadlines for the awarding of the next two franchises -- the asking price of which is expected to be $40 million.

Montreal, in whose brand-new venue -- Saputo Stadium -- the Whitecaps will play on Monday against the Impact, is already a serious bidder in the MLS franchise competition.

Lenarduzzi said he wouldn't share what attendance levels the club would need to attract at B.C. Place Stadium to make the business model work, but he was confident there would be bigger numbers -- especially if, as expected, the club is playing in MLS.

"We feel we can make it work with a reasonable increase in the numbers. Look at Seattle. They're in a similar situation in Qwest Field and they have 15,000 deposits for season tickets and they're a year away. People forget that when we were at our height at Empire Stadium after winning the Soccer Bowl in 1979, we averaged 28,000 a game."

It's expected the artificial surface at B.C. Place will be replaced for the 2011 season. It is currently FieldTurf, bought used from Olympic Stadium in Montreal three years ago. FieldTurf of a certain spec is acceptable to both FIFA and MLS.

It's been a serendipitous week for the Whitecaps, who downed Miami FC 1-0 on Friday in Florida and play the first game at Saputo Stadium on Monday.

"It's been a quite a week," said Lenarduzzi, "when you consider we played the Los Angeles Galaxy [of the MLS] in Edmonton in front of just under 40,000 people [a 2-1 win] and in the same week these plans were unveiled."

© The Vancouver Province 2008