March 19, 2011, will be an historical day for Whitecaps FC, as they begin life as the 17th team in Major League Soccer when they host Canadian arch-rivals Toronto FC in their opening MLS match at Vancouver's Empire Field.
With 2011 expansion cousins Portland Timbers debuting at MLS Cup holders Colorado Rapids the same day, Vancouver's first MLS match will go into the league's history books as one of 11 debuts to be made by expansion teams since 1998.
The first two years of MLS saw the league play a 10-club competition, with five teams making up the Eastern Conference and five teams part of the Western Conference in seasons 1996 and 1997. In 1998, Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion became the first two MLS expansion clubs to join the league.
The Fusion's league debut on March 15 proved a tall task, as they fell 2-0 to two-time defending MLS champions D.C. United. Six days later, Chicago made a positive start by defeating expansion cousins Miami 2-0. The win sparked a remarkable first season for the Fire, who went on to become the second MLS club in three years to claim an 'American double' of Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and MLS Cup titles. The Fusion, meanwhile, played four seasons in MLS before ceasing operations at the end of the 2001 campaign.
The next stage of expansion came in 2005, as Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake joined the Western Conference, with Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) moving over to the Eastern Conference. Both teams debuted on April 2, with Chivas USA losing 2-0 at home to D.C. United, while Real Salt Lake drew 0-0 at New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls). Through six seasons in the league, Real Salt Lake claimed an MLS Cup title in 2009, while Chivas USA made the playoffs on four occasions and topped the Western Conference regular season standings in 2007.
In 2006, Houston Dynamo were formed after the league moved the first MLS edition of San Jose Earthquakes from California to Texas. With two MLS Cup titles won by San Jose in 2001 and 2003, the Dynamo began their MLS existence with a convincing 5-2 home win over Colorado Rapids on April 2. Brian Ching scored four goals in Houston's league debut, with all four goals assisted by Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario. The Dynamo went on to win the MLS Cup that season before repeating as champions the following year.
For Canadian soccer fans, 2007 was a landmark year, as Toronto FC became the first non-American club to play in MLS. Their first match in the league was a losing effort, as they fell 2-0 at Chivas USA on April 7. Since then, TFC have struggled to be among the league's elite, having missed the playoffs in all four seasons of their existence. Their only bit of silverware came in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship in 2009 and 2010.
2008 saw the return of the Earthquakes in San Jose. Their first match back in the league took place on April 3, as they fell 2-0 at California rivals Los Angeles Galaxy. The new Earthquakes struggled through the 2008 and 2009 seasons before the Bay Area outfit made the postseason in 2010, losing in the Eastern Conference final to eventual champions Colorado.
In 2009, MLS made the move to the Pacific Northwest when Seattle Sounders FC made the jump to North America's top flight. Backed by a sold-out crowd of 32,523 at Qwest Field, Sounders FC defeated New York Red Bulls 3-0 in their league debut on March 19. Seattle made the playoffs that year and became the second MLS expansion club after Chicago to win the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. They repeated those feats in 2010, as well as appear in the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League.
The 16th MLS club came into being in 2010 when Philadelphia Union joined the league. They faced a baptism of fire on March 25, as Philadelphia raised the curtain to the season with a 2-0 defeat in Seattle. Though they missed the playoffs in their first season, the Union showed glimpses of being a competitive outfit in the future.
There will be much anticipation for Vancouver and Portland in late March, and with Montreal getting their turn in 2012, an expansion club's first match in MLS will always be a special occasion.