Vancouver Whitecaps FC players are back in town and will begin training at Empire Field on Monday. They will train at the home of the old North American Soccer League (NASL)'s Soccer Bowl champions - the place where it all began for the Blue and White. This will certainly bring back memories to all of us who played and watched games at the old Empire Stadium, and had so much fun doing so.
I first arrived in Vancouver in February 1979. No, it was not on Valentine's Day, it was actually the first week of February. There were five or six other players that arrived that day, it was grey and pouring down with rain, and we were escorted to a hotel on Davie Street. I remember wondering if I had made the right decision to move here.
The next day was training and we got in our Honda Civic cars and drove to Empire. This was when I realized I had made the right move. The sun was shining and the mountains were in full view, as I walked on to Empire Place. It really felt like I was in heaven.
Empire Stadium holds a lot of memories for a lot of people. When I began playing there in 1979, it was not the most glamorous stadium we played in, but for players in the NASL, it was one of the best atmospheres around the league. Who can forget "Ogi, Ogi, Ogi" or "White is the Colour" being sung or chanted by a full house at Empire.
I remember my first game at Empire, which had a huge crowd. I was sitting on the bench (remember, in my first game, I was a substitute) trying to watch the game. But I could not see Willie Johnston on the other side of the field unless I stood up.
If I had to pick one memory from the old Empire Stadium, it would have to be August 25th, 1979, and we were coming home from a 3-2 defeat to Los Angeles Aztecs in the NASL playoffs. It meant we had to win a regulation game and a half-hour mini game to reach the playoff semifinals. Empire was sold out at 32,375 and the atmosphere was electric. We won the regulation game 1-0 on an Aztecs own-goal, and the atmosphere became very tense, as we moved into the half-hour mini game.
I can’t remember what time in the game it was, but yours truly was lucky enough to make a run down the right wing and cross the ball for 'King Kevin' Hector to head in the winner. To this day, my friend Bobby Lenarduzzi felt that cross was meant for him at the far post, but Kevin was there first to convert the chance. What I do remember is the crowd went crazy, and we all remember what happened from there…
These are some of the memories I will be carrying on to Empire Field on Monday. I wonder what yours are?