Lenarduzzi likes Sounders' model for MLS launch - The Province


Bring Seattle magic here

By Marc Weber

Greg Kerfoot and Bob Lenarduzzi have done their share of pioneering when it comes to club soccer in Canada.

But as far as launching a Major League Soccer team in Vancouver in 2011, the Whitecaps are going to unabashedly try and roll this big green Sounders FC wheel up the I-5 and slap on some blue paint.

"There's no reason to reinvent anything," said Lenarduzzi, the club's president, before the L.A. Galaxy and Real Salt Lake kicked off the MLS Cup Sunday at Seattle's full and festive Qwest Field.

"There are things that are going to be different, but the principles as to what they're doing, and how they're doing it, certainly we're going to apply those."

It's hard to know where to start with this Seattle success story, but Sunday is as good a highlight as any from their inaugural season.

More than 40,000 fans showed up -- the vast majority in a neutral role.

Like a Seahawks NFL game, they stood the entire time, though deafening noise was replaced by drums and chanting.

Seattle set an MLS attendance record in 2009 by averaging more than 30,000 fans per game. And that's their season ticket target for Year 2.

For Lenarduzzi, more impressive than the numbers is the passion.

"A year ago, maybe a lot of these fans didn't know the Sounders existed. But they've been able to capture the pride of the city and transfer it into the club. They've been able to do that in one year. We have to somehow bottle what they've done and get it up to Vancouver, and I think we're on our way."

Five thousand season ticket deposits flew out the door in less than 48 hours when Vancouver got its MLS franchise in March -- a positive early sign.

The Whitecaps are targeting 16,500 as their Year 1 season ticket base, and the next block of deposits will go on sale around May.

"It will likely be coupled with our new logo and new uniforms," said Lenarduzzi, who again left the door open to a name change from Whitecaps, though his personal preference is to keep with history.

That's what the Sounders did. But, more importantly, they've been competitive -- something Toronto FC can't claim, despite setting the supporters bar for Seattle.

The Sounders were 12-7-11 in their inaugural season, making the conference semifinals and bringing home the U.S. Open Cup -- the FA Cup for American teams.

"The fact the owners stepped up and brought us a competitive team -- they brought in [Freddie] Ljungberg and [Fredy] Montero and [coach] Sigi Schmid, who knows how to organize a good team -- it sparked people's interest," said Sounders fan Rod Smith, wearing his season ticket holder scarf, one of the unique marketing moves Seattle made.

"We said, Hey, these guys are serious, so we're going to take this seriously."

Thousands of fans march through downtown toward the stadium 90 minutes before each match, and MLS commissioner Don Garber remarked he was moved to take pictures with his iPhone Sunday.

"It's been nothing short of spectacular," Garber said of the week.

Lenarduzzi has already said Vancouver is likely to copy the scarf concept, and they'll obviously be keen to emulate the Sounders' sponsorship success -- topped by a $20-million-US, five-year deal with Microsoft and Xbox 360.

But ownership won't say it's committed to bringing in a designated player, like Ljungberg is for Seattle -- one who operates outside the league's salary cap rules. And a coaching decision is still far away.

The priority is getting an experienced MLS person in a technical director-type role, something Lenarduzzi hopes will be done by year's end.

"I think we need to hold our hands up and admit what we don't know and get someone who does know," Lenarduzzi said.

One thing Vancouver won't likely be able to replicate, unless they win their way in, is hosting an MLS Cup in its first year. Garber said the league is strongly considering moving away from the neutral host format.

But when it comes to assessing Year 1 of an expansion franchise, the standard has been set. Now the Whitecaps hope to put that wheel in motion.

"They've proven what can be done," said Lenarduzzi, "so we don't have any excuses."

mweber@theprovince.com