MLS entry is looking ever sounder - The Province

Joint is rocking as the new boss helps ignite enthusiasm for 2011 season

By Marc Weber

Paul Barber knows there's a healthy appetite for Major League Soccer in Vancouver; the Whitecaps' CEO is being hunted by the hungry.

"I've been invited to dinner by more strangers in the past two weeks than ever in my life," Barber said Thursday morning, as the club marked its one-year countdown to MLS launch.

"That gives a sense of not only the spirit and the kindness of the people in the city but also their enthusiasm for soccer. But I'm not sure I'd be a great dinner guest because all I can talk about is soccer."

Soccer, of course, is all people want to talk about with the former Tottenham Hotspur executive, who left his boyhood club for Vancouver on March 1. And Tuesday evening, 500 prospective MLS season-ticket holders jammed into a downtown restaurant to do just that.

Barber, club president Bob Lenarduzzi and director of soccer operations Tommy Soehn were all there to mingle with fans, and the attendance and energy was perhaps a more impressive sign than selling out 5,000 season-ticket deposits in less than 48 hours a year ago.

After all, the Whitecaps weren't even playing on the numerous TVs -- that was Seattle and Philadelphia in the MLS season-opener.

"It's so neat to see, having gone through the days when things fell to one or two thousand fans, that it's now going all the way back to the way it was," said Glenn Van As, there with his dad, Tom, a season-ticket holder since day one of the franchise.

"It's about time that they got back into the big league," added Tom.

The longtime fans beamed as Lenarduzzi reminisced about the NASL. And the younger crowd chanted "Paul, Paul, Paul," as Barber took centre stage.

With 2,500 current season-ticket holders -- who will each have the right to purchase eight MLS season-tickets -- plus 5,000 MLS season-ticket deposit holders and another 3,000 on a wait-list, the Whitecaps are well on their way to hitting their year-one target of 16,500 season tickets.

The Whitecaps move from Swangard Stadium to 27,000-seat Empire Field to open their inaugural MLS season in March 2011.

They hope that by July 2011, they'll be moved into a more intimate BC Place, which is getting a retractable roof and an internal roofing system to close off the upper deck.

The configuration for BC Place is still being worked on, though the lower bowl is expected to seat between 20,000 and 25,000.

Barber said the club's responsibility is to deliver a product on the pitch but, with 36,000 Seattle supporters as the backdrop, he challenged the Vancouver fans to make game days festive and fierce.

In other words, don't expect giant clapping hands on a jumbotron to tell you what to do.

"We're relying on you to generate an atmosphere that's going to make Seattle look like a nursery party," Barber said.

"Five-, six-hundred people here tonight, just to talk. That's phenomenal. There's a lot of clubs in England who would absolutely love a night like this and one of the issues I think with English football is the accessibility of the club to the fans.

"One of the things we've got to keep getting right is this sort of event."

The next such fan event could well be the re-branding unveil in late June. The Whitecaps name will stay, but there'll be a new logo and kit, the latter sporting the name of the club's major sponsor. Another block of season-ticket deposits will go on sale in the coming days.

Having a presence downtown, both for games and fan functions, is key, said Stephen Bailey of Vancouver. He's attended the odd second-division Whitecaps game at Swangard, but has season-ticket deposits down for MLS.

"The idea that Portland and Seattle are so close to us, that we're going to get that rivalry on a major sporting scale with a couple of thousand back and forth from those cities -- that madness is hard to find other places," he said. "Now I'm getting goose bumps."

mweber@theprovince.com
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