Vancouver wins its second title in three years
VANCOUVER - The details of the Vancouver Whitecaps' return from Soccer Bowl Five are well known to B.C. soccer fans. It was an improbable sports story that grabbed the province by the heart and squeezed it like none other before.
But there was a dark side to that 1979 championship season that took some of the lustre off the only major North American title to be won by a professional sports team in Vancouver.
The North American Soccer League rewarded each Whitecap player with a $4,000 bonus for the win. A figure many of Vancouver's veteran players felt the team should match considering it was a longstanding tradition in leagues overseas. But general manager John Best refused and many players still feel jilted to this day.
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi was a member of the '79 Whitecaps, and although he was just happy to be a part of a championship team, he's heard enough griping over the years to know not to make the same mistake twice.
As a result, Vancouver players can expect a tidy bonus on their final pay after Sunday's 2-1 victory over the Puerto Rico Islanders in the United Soccer Leagues First Division championship at Swangard Stadium.
"I don't want to get into the exact amount, but an incentive was there, and we told the players just before they went out," said Lenarduzzi. "Our owner is very cognizant of rewarding people and it's part of the culture of our club. If we have people that do well, they get rewarded."
If that's the case, forward Charles Gbeke's bonus should have an extra zero on the end. The Montreal native scored a pair of second-half goals to single-handedly lift the Whitecaps to victory in a game that never rose to the heights of soccer precision, but that had moments of magic at both ends of the pitch.
Gbeke was the best player by far and an easy choice as the game's MVP, even before finishing off Justin Moose's cross for the game-winner in the 73rd minute.
It shouldn't go unnoticed that he almost willed the game's first goal, winding the south side fans into a frenzy by whipping his arms around like a windmill just seconds before connecting on an Alfredo Valente corner kick in the 55th minute.
Gbeke celebrated with the same fans after the final whistle before breaking into a dance on stage with his teammates during the trophy presentation.
"[They're] two biggest goals of my career and it feels great," said the 6-2, 210-pound Gbeke, whose goals bookended Islanders' Sandy Gbandi's header in the 68th minute to tie the game at 1-1. "It's something I'll never forget."
He's not the only one. Many of the game's boisterous and flag-waving crowd of 5,822 stuck around well after the game to soak in the atmosphere and celebrate the historic win with the monarchs of the USL.
While the victory is the seventh in Vancouver's professional soccer history, it's the first at home in Whitecaps team history and comes 17 years after the 86ers defeated the Toronto Blizzard in the Canadian Soccer League final.
"I'm still looking around and I don't know what's happened," said veteran defender Jeff Clarke, who deflected Valente's corner to set up the game's first goal. "Our fans are joining in it with us and it's just a wonderful feeling. Now that we've [won at home], I don't know if you can compare the two [Rochester in '06 and Sunday]. It's on a different level."
On the other side of the pitch, Puerto Rico players sat dejected on the grass and left the field with their chins buried in their chests.
It was a disappointing loss for the Islanders, the favourites heading into the game as a result of their top place standing in the regular season.
Despite their standing, they were the visitors as a result of a controversial move by the league office that chose to hold the game in Vancouver based on the Whitecaps superior hosting proposal, something all semifinalists were required to submit.
"It's not worth commenting any more, it was wrong," said Islanders head coach Colin Clarke, when asked if the decision to award the game to the Whitecaps played a factor in the outcome. "You buy the final, it cost money."
Well, he was sort of right. But it had nothing to do with the league or home-field advantage. More it was a little thing called incentive.
© Vancouver Sun