Whitecaps' 12th man is highlight of season - Vancouver Sun


BY IAN WALKER

Of all the stats on the scoresheet at the conclusion of the Vancouver Whitecaps' 1-1 draw with the Rochester Rhinos at Swangard Stadium on Saturday, one stood out among the rest -- the game's attendance of 5,288.

The number represented the Whitecaps' ninth straight sellout at home and 10th of the season, tying a club record that has stood since 1987. Not bad considering the weak economy and the fact the team has a sub-.500 record for most of the season. With three of the team's final five regular season games being played at the Burnaby Stadium -- including Wednesday's match with the expansion Austin Aztex -- the question isn't if the Whitecaps will break the mark, but when.

"Looking at sales, I'm assuming we're likely to do it as soon as Wednesday," said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, whose team is on pace to surpass last season's total attendance of 100,446, which was a 22-year high. "There's obviously something going on. We're selling to more groups, getting bigger walkups and more sales on the day of and days before the game. Every area is up."

The hype surrounding Vancouver's acceptance into Major League Soccer is part of the reason, but there's more to it than that. An up-tempo style of play is keeping fans entertained win, lose or draw.

"There have been times in past years where I found myself a little antsy because not much was happening," said Lenarduzzi. "Even if you don't get the result, we need to entertain, and for the most part I think we've done that this year. Our game against Rochester was probably the worst we've had at home all season in terms of that."

Charles Gbeke scored in his 50th game with Vancouver, but it was a pair of former Whitecaps that stole the show on Saturday. Steve Kindel set up Ze Roberto for the equalizer in the 80th minute for the Rhinos, who maintained sole possession of fifth place in the United Soccer Leagues First Division with the draw.

Vancouver (8-9-8) remains in possession of the seventh and final playoff spot, three points back of Rochester.

To show their appreciation, Whitecaps players acknowledge the crowd after every home game by clapping as they walk off the field.

"The crowd has been amazing all season," said Gbeke, who has four goals in his last three games for nine on the season.

"It's not been an easy year for anyone, but it's nice to know we can count on our 12th man every time we walk through the tunnel. That's going to be huge heading into the playoffs."

You don't say. Vancouver is 6-3-3 at Swangard.

- Injured striker Maron James is set to start training again this week and is expected to be available against the Aztex.

Winger Justin Moose also hopes to return to training after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a foot injury.

iwalker@vancouversun.com

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