By L.E. Eisenmenger - BOSTON, MA
After the first season success of the Seattle Sounders, the USL-1 2008 Champions Vancouver Whitecaps FC have a hard act to follow as they prepare to enter MLS as a 2011 expansion team.
The Vancouver ownership group consists of Greg Kerfoot, Steve Luczo, Jeff Mallett, and Steve Nash. Together with president Bob Lenarduzzi, they’re simultaneously building the 2011 MLS club and staff, managing the $365 million refurbishment of 60,000 seat BC Place Stadium, preparing the Whitecaps for their final 2010 season, and taking the squad through the 2009 playoffs. I spoke with Lenarduzzi at the end of the day and he sounded a little tired but perked up to chat about Vancouver’s residential academy, which will be the first in MLS, and the difficulty of finding a good defender these days.
“Defending is a lost art in terms of zonal defending,” said Lenarduzzi. “Just finding players that want to tackle and defend and do the defending job first and foremost as opposed to trying to be a Franz Beckenbauer seem to hard to find, so it’s frustrating.”
Lenarduzzi was a right fullback in the NASL Whitecaps from the inaugural 1974 season till they folded 11 years later. He was coach of the Vancouver 86ers and then the Canadian National Team from 1992-97. He returned to the 86ers (who later re-branded as the Whitecaps) for a total of 35 years in Vancouver soccer. Now, he has to keep the current USL team on track while getting the MLS club up and running. Like the Sounders, the Whitecaps intend to build their MLS roster from the existing USL squad.
“We’re running parallel paths,” said Lenarduzzi. “We won’t be focusing solely on MLS till we conclude next year’s USL-1 season, but the idea would be to try to have as many players from that USL roster make up our MLS roster for the start of 2011. We can use Seattle as a pretty good example. They have six players that were carry-overs from their USL-1 team that are still on their MLS roster. Ideally we’d like to at least have that number and hopefully more, and that will depend on our recruiting for next year, which will start as soon as we’re done with this USL season and we’re currently in the playoffs.”
“As far as where the players will come from, we’re scouting in other parts of the world,” said Lenarduzzi. “If you look at the success of Seattle, a lot of theirs’ has been a result of the imports they’ve brought in, they’ve all done well for them - Montero, Hurtado, Osvaldo Alonso was a USL1 player last year, he came from Cuba. They won the Open Cup, which was great to do in their first year and that brings with it qualification for Champions League next year, which is great from a playing perspective and they’re getting crowds in excess of 30,000.”
Vancouver talks regularly with Seattle and Toronto and by the end of the year will have taken advice from every MLS club about best practices and who they see as up-and-coming coaches, players, and staff. Now, Vancouver is putting together a technical staff, one that is familiar with the workings of MLS and ready to jump on ship now.
”We’ve started that process already,” said Lenarduzzi. “We’ve spoken with a person from MLS about that particular position and we’re in the midst of interviewing three or four more people between now and the end of the year. We’re not quite sure if we want to tag it ‘technical director,’ but what we are sure of is that whatever we refer to that non-coaching role as, that will be independent of the coaching role. What we don’t want is the responsibilities of both of those individuals to be with one person. We feel that coaching is results related and whatever we call that other position it’s more club building, especially as in our case we’re starting from scratch, so we see them as distinctly different positions.”
“We’re interviewing for the non-coaching position now with the view that we’ll hire that person pronto. We’d like to have somebody in place before the end of the year to help us familiarize the club with the very complex world of MLS. I’ve been in the game for 35 years as a player, coach, administrator, and what we’re going into now doesn’t resemble anything that I’ve been involved with in the past, so I’m okay with holding my hand up and saying we need help. We want to get somebody on board with MLS knowledge as soon as possible.”
While Vancouver is looking for a veteran to show them the ins and outs of MLS, in 2011 the Whitecaps bring a special distinction to MLS because the Whitecaps lead the way in player development with a residential youth academy, now in its third year. Funded by owner Greg Kerfoot at a cost of $1 million a year, the academy houses, trains, and educates 15, 16, and 17 year-old players from as far away as Jamaica and Eastern Canada.
“The academy was a cornerstone objective when I got involved with the owner six years ago,” said Lenarduzzi. “One of the things I suggested to him was if he wanted to be in it for the long haul, we really needed to have a hand in our own destiny, hence, the start-up of the significant investment of the residency program.”
The Whitecaps have already sold on a young residency player to German club FC Energie Cottbus on an accelerated fee contract, where there’s an upfront amount, another sum after his first game with the first team, another sum after X number of games, and then if he gets sold the Whitecaps get a percentage of the transfer fee. Residential academy players forfeit access to NCAA scholarships and college play, however.
“We’re clear on that,” said Lenarduzzi. “We make it very clear to the parents and the kids that this is an alternative, you can’t do both. If you want to pursue a professional career in the game, then you do what pianists and others do in their fields, you pursue that full time. We’ve come to the conclusion you can’t tap dance around that – you either want to go the professional route at a very young age or you don’t.”
In the immediate future is the bread and butter of ticket sales, however. The initial 5,000 tickets made available for the MLS Whitecaps in their new stadium were sold in 48 hours. The next step is to convert the current 2,800 season ticket and pass holders and 1,500 fans on the wait list to deposits, which should combine to 10,000 total by the end of the year. The next on-sale tickets will become available around May when they unveil the new logo and uniforms.
The new stadium is BC Place in downtown Vancouver and is being tailored to create an intimate atmosphere for 20,000 Whitecaps fans. BC Place will feature two retractable roofs and the lower roof will slide over the lower bowl to obscure the seats in the upper bowl, quite a change from the current venue, the 5,200 seat Swangard Stadium. But despite all that Vancouver has to offer, the Whitecaps have big shoes to fill as the new kid in town in 2011.
“The fact that Seattle Sounders were a USL club,” said Lenarduzzi, “and achieved the success they have both on and off the field, raises the bar for anybody coming after them.“