By Marc Weber
Any conversation about the greatest Vancouver Whitecaps women's player ever starts and ends with Andrea Neil. But when it comes to that "It" factor, few can match up with Kara Lang.
"We've had lots of great players here, but Kara just seemed to have that little extra special charisma that girls just seem to be drawn to," said Dan Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps' director of youth development.
On Monday, the club officially announced Lang's return after three seasons away -- the 23-year-old Canadian international forward signing a one-year deal.
If her recovery from a second ACL tear in her right knee continues to go well, it's a move that will help the Caps vault from their 3-4-5 record last W-League season. But of equal importance to the club is her profile and personality.
Lang was also given the title of Whitecaps Women's Ambassador. The team will play just once at Swangard Stadium this season, instead taking the action to Coquitlam, Langley, Richmond and Victoria.
"There's so much opportunity in Vancouver and in B.C. to promote the women's game and, in all honesty, in the past, opportunities have been missed or not taken advantage of," Lang said from Los Angeles where she's finishing up her history and art history studies at UCLA.
"There are so many fans of the game and young players that should have a women's team to look up to. The men's program is obviously very successful and the idea of moving the women's game forward is really exciting to me."
Lang's knee injury -- which cut short her senior NCAA season by nine games back in September -- might well have worked in the Whitecaps' favour.
Lang, a two-time Women's World Cup player and an Olympian in 2008, was passed over in January's Women's Professional Soccer league draft. She wasn't surprised that teams weren't willing to risk using up a coveted international spot on a Canadian coming off her second ACL tear.
Vancouver, where Lang debuted for the club as a 16-year-old in 2003, riding the wave of Canada's silver-medal showing at the 2002 FIFA Women's Under-19 World Championships, was a natural choice.
Lang won a W-League title here in 2004 and started the '06 championship season, too, before suffering her first ACL injury. That '06 season, when the national team was based out of Vancouver and 4,000-plus fans attended stand-alone women's games, was the last time there was a real buzz around the squad.
"Vancouver is my second home," said the Oakville, Ont.-raised Lang. "The Whitecaps have been so great to me in the past and it's just a really great environment for me to come back from an injury like this. It's comfortable and supportive and the level of play will be exceptional."
As those last few words suggest, Lang won't be the only Whitecap with senior national team experience when the season opens May 30.
First-year head coach Hubert Busby Jr. hopes to have 10 to 12 such players on board.
The Whitecaps also sound prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Lang here long-term, though much will depend on her role with the national team and the opportunities in WPS next season.
Lang, who has scored 33 goals in 88 international matches, hopes to join Carolina Morace's Canada squad for an April camp. "I do think there's an opportunity here with the club and we hope that between the playing and the off-field stuff, we'll be able to forge a longer relationship with her," Lenarduzzi said.
And that would be music to the ears of many working in the women's game locally, like Coquitlam Metro-Ford technical director and former Whitecap Sara Maglio.
"She became that poster girl for us in Canada," Maglio said. "Unfortunately, I think that's gone a little bit, but I hope that her coming back will help and that the Whitecaps will do a good job of marketing it and that will bring some excitement back."
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