It is 33 years to the day when Vancouver Whitecaps FC crowned a truly memorable season in the North American Soccer League (NASL), with what club president and former player Bob Lenarduzzi described as a “workmanlike” performance.
The 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL Soccer Bowl was the icing on the cake of a campaign that captivated hundreds of thousands of people across British Columbia, especially when you take the many crescendos of 1979 into account.
The team was attracting crowds in excess of 30,000 people for home matches at Empire Stadium, with games also being shown live on television.
Willie Johnston even took a sip of beer offered to him by a fan before taking a corner at San Jose Earthquakes. Of course, the ensuing kick ended up in the back of the net – perhaps a sign the Scotsman knew ‘Caps were on their way to lifting the trophy at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Vancouver clinched the Western Division that year, finishing 10 points ahead of legendary Dutchman Johan Cruyff’s Los Angeles Aztecs.
It would not be the last time Tony Waiters’ troops would get the better of NASL MVP Cruyff that season, with the ‘Caps eliminating the Aztecs in a gripping conference semifinal.
Then only a week later, arguably the best game of the NASL’s 17 years of existence took place when Vancouver travelled to East Rutherford in New Jersey to take on the glamorous New York Cosmos – winners of the past two titles.
ABC in the United States broadcasted the matches, and it was during that nail-biting series with Franz Beckenbauer and his Cosmos when veteran sportscaster Jim McKay famously remarked to his audience: "Vancouver must be like the deserted village right now.”
To the chagrin of the demanding Cosmos faithful, the ‘Caps stunned North America by knocking out New York after four-and-a-half hours over two legs, extra time, mini games, and penalty kicks.
Looking back, Lenarduzzi admitted he was worried the team would have been solely content with ousting the feared Cosmos, considering many thought New York were unbeatable.
“We were the focus of attention at that time and the concern that I think was running through our squad, and it was probably a good thing that it was, was that we had beaten the Cosmos on national television, they were the favourites and we’d beaten them in their backyard,” he said.
“And the danger might have been that we would have felt that we’d achieved what we needed to when in actualit,y if we’d not gone and won the championship, it would not have mattered.
“So I thought our coaching staff and players did a very good job of celebrating the New York victory, but realizing that it would all be for naught if in fact we didn’t get the result against Tampa.
“But we went out and it was a very workmanlike performance that ultimately won us the title.”
On September 8, back at Giants Stadium in front of more than 50,000 people, the ‘Caps took care of business against Tampa Bay thanks to goals either side of halftime from Englishman Trevor Whymark.
Sandwiched in between those efforts was an equalizer from Tampa’s burly – and mustachioed – Dutch forward Jan van der Veen.
Lenarduzzi said the team responded well after the Rowdies drew level.
“It came against the run of the play, we scored then the game had a bit of a lull and the goal came. It was a sloppy goal, we probably should have cleared it, and it was a challenge on the edge of the box and the ball fell to van der Veen,” he recalled.
“He took it well, but we answered fairly quickly in the second half, which was good because had the game gone on 1-1 late and and towards the 90-minute mark, then I’m sure there would have been some anxious moments, which there was regardless, but we did have the lead and they were chasing that.
“That workmanlike display kind of exemplified our team. We didn’t have any real superstars and we were a bunch of guys that all knew that we were reliant on one another.”
Upon Vancouver’s return home, an unprecedented 100,000 fans headed into downtown for the parade to celebrate Whitecaps FC’s historic moment.
The team’s induction into the BC Sports Hall of Fame a few years later polished off the perfect script.
“We were pretty much the talk of the town at that time and the fact that we had 100,000 people in downtown Vancouver to celebrate our win illustrates how big a deal it was,” Lenarduzzi acknowledged.
“Most people look back on that time with fond memories of the ‘Caps, so that’s why it’s nice now to have what I’m referencing as a renaissance of the sport in this province and this time around, there’s sustainability which unfortunately there wasn’t the last time around.
“So I think Whitecaps FC are here to stay, and the milestones will be probably 40 years and 45 years and 50 years, and hopefully, I’m around to talk about it still.”