By Jeff Paterson
It's official. Vancouver is now a Major League Soccer city. The worst-kept secret in sports was confirmed this morning (March 18) as MLS officially welcomed the Whitecaps to the fold as the league's newest franchise at a splashy press conference at the Westin Bayshore.
As expected, the 'Caps will make their MLS debut in 2011 and will play out of the newlook B.C. Place Stadium, which will be configured as a 20,000 seat soccer-specific venue for games.
Along with Toronto FC, the Whitecaps become the second Canadian entry into MLS so there will be an instant rivalry in place there along with the natural geographical and historical rivalry with the Seattle Sounders, who kick off their inaugural MLS season on Thursday night (March 19).
The Whitecaps have worked toward this moment for years so you have no choice but to feel good for the ownership group (Greg Kerfoot and Steve Nash among them) and for the face of the franchise Bobby Lenarduzzi who has been banging this MLS drum for years.
But now the real work begins. Just because the 'Caps have been granted entry in the top league in the U.S. and Canada doesn't automatically mean people will flock to the stadium to watch soccer. At lower levels, the 'Caps have proven there is a rocksolid soccer fan base of 5,000 in Vancouver who've faithfully supported the club over many years at Swangard. A few years from now, we'll have a much better sense of the true appetite for the beautiful game in this part of the world.
Will the move up to MLS combined with the move downtown for home games expand the reach of the Whitecaps? They're certainly counting on it, but only time will tell. There has clearly been a groundswell of support to make this day happen, but will that support still exist—and will it grow—when the MLS Whitecaps take the field for the first time? The novelty factor of being a new team in a new league will only carry them so far.
People always point to the number of kids playing soccer in this country as indication of the interest in the game. Yet if you look at the type of crowds Toronto FC draws, it's not a bunch of soccer moms who've loaded up their minivans to take in a game. There is a real edge—almost a hostility—to the atmosphere at BMO Field, which in some ways makes the games wildly entertaining regardless of the outcome or whether any goals are scored. That volatility, though, also makes some of the stadium no place whatsoever for young children.
Hopefully, the Whitecaps can strike a balance because there certainly appears to be a spot in this marketplace for that type of unique sporting experience. But the 'Caps also know they've got to grow the game through the support of families and youth soccer who need to feel welcome as well. I hope it works here because Vancouver can use another professional sports option in the spring and through the summer.
As an organization, the Whitecaps have done everything in their power—on and off the field—to prove they belong in the top league available to them. They just have to hope that MLS is still thriving by the time the 'Caps hit the pitch for the first time two years from now. In these economic times there are no certainties. It's been hard work for the Whitecaps to make this day a reality, but now the truly difficult task begins—and that's making Vancouver a soccer city once again.
For more information on the Whitecaps and Major League Soccer, visit www.vancouvermls2011.com/.