Whitecaps braced for new challenges of the MLS - The Province

Tomorrow's 'Caps will look a lot different than today's as team moves to a bigger, bolder and more skilled league

BY MARC WEBER

"Vancouver 2011" was plastered all over Wednesday's slick downtown press conference to announce Major League Soccer's 17th franchise.

Not a "Whitecaps" reference in sight, which had some reaching for a paper bag as a breathing apparatus.

The team's name will be up for fan debate, but it would take a monumental collective brain cramp for it to change, and that's not the point of this branding decision anyway.

Your Whitecaps of today are not going to be your Whitecaps of tomorrow.

The league will be bigger. The venue will be bolder. And the players will be better. Come opening day in 2011, there won't be any confusion. Consider this a constant reminder.

"What we want to try to do is distinguish between what we're doing now in USL [United Soccer Leagues] and what we're going to build," said Whitecaps' president Bob Lenarduzzi, who called it a "massive day" for his soccer club and for the sport provincially and nationally.

Vancouver's ownership group, headed by current Caps' owner Greg Kerfoot, paid a $35 million US franchise fee, which was $25 million more than Toronto FC paid as Canada's first team in 2006, but $5 million less than what MLS was initially seeking from this round of expansion.

That number will drop further if MLS awards its 18th franchise for less -- a battle between Portland, St. Louis and Ottawa.

Vancouver will shift from Swangard Stadium to B.C. Place in 2011, with $365 million in renovations, including a retractable roof, transforming The Dome into what the Whitecaps believe will be a world-class soccer venue.

Fans can put deposits on season tickets starting Saturday (see box). Jeff Mallett, the Victoria-raised former Yahoo! COO and Vancouver MLS owner, said the city is ready to wholly embrace soccer once again.

When the Whitecaps won the 1979 NASL Soccer Bowl, 100,000 packed Robson Street for the parade.

"There's no doubt that soccer is deep in the roots here," said Mallett, who will serve as co-governor along with Kerfoot. "When we put the [MLS] model out there, there was such a groundswell it made sense from day one."

Vancouver already has a pair of obvious MLS rivals in Toronto and Seattle -- the latter set to host its franchise opener in front of a sold-out crowd of 32,400 tonight at Qwest Field.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said he's excited to recapture that derby feel from the NASL days.

"The passion in the NASL was the Northwest rivalry," he said. "We're going to be able to replicate that with Vancouver and Seattle, and if Portland comes in you get that trifecta. That was a big part of what intrigued us and what excites us."

mweber@theprovince.com

AT THE BOX OFFICE: SEASON TICKETS ON SALE

Saturday at 10 a.m., the Whitecaps are making 5,000 season tickets for 2011 available through Ticketmaster. Only a deposit of $50 per seat will be charged for now and the club has not yet released its MLS ticket prices, saying that they will be "affordable." Existing Whitecaps ticket holders (season tickets and multi-game packages) will be at the front of the line to purchase MLS season tickets down the road. B.C. Place Stadium will hold around 20,000 for soccer once reconfigured and the Whitecaps will cap season tickets at 16,500. Toronto FC sells out every game and has 16,000 season-ticket holders and a wait list of 14,000. Seattle is approaching its season-ticket cap of 22,000. For more info, check out: vancouverMLS2011.com

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