MLS knows its place in North American sports -- and Vancouver is a good fit


Don't panic. It was a brain cramp, like the L.A. Galaxy signing David Beckham.

Put it down to the giddiness of Wednesday's announcement, an inevitable tendency to overhype the prospects of an ownership group that had just agreed to pay $35 million US for the right to join a non-mainstream sports league amid the worst recession any of us has ever seen.

Surely, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber didn't really mean to say: "Our goal is to be one of the world's dominant soccer leagues and to be one of the premier major sports leagues throughout North America." Surely not. Because that would be channeling Phil Woosnam, the old snake-oil salesman who fronted the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and routinely made grandiose claims about the limitless future of the league.

Which then folded in the 80s.

What Garber meant to say, after introducing Vancouver as the 17th member of MLS, was (allow me, sir):

"Our goal is to build, responsibly and methodically, toward a day when those who love the game of soccer at its highest level can embrace our product as a worthy substitute, a local surrogate for the English Premiership or Italian Serie A or the German Bundesliga, where those fans' loyalties will remain until they die.

"And to younger fans, we pledge to create, by capping the number of available seats and packing our smaller stadiums, the same sense of community and shared passion that the major pro sports leagues of North America have been able to engender in their followers. And if, in the eyes of our fans, that puts us up there with the Big Four, we will be very gratified."

Thanks. Much better.

Because at the risk of raining on Wednesday's very impressive parade at the Westin Bayshore, let's be honest: Everyone with a digital TV box, which is everyone, can now regularly see better soccer than what the Vancouver Whitecaps will be playing when they join MLS in 2011.

The difference this time is, no one (we forgive Garber his momentary lapse) is pretending otherwise.

That house of cards collapsed 25 years ago, and we hope -- and Bob Lenarduzzi hopes -- MLS is not trying to get the rickety structure to stand again.

"Big difference now," said Lenarduzzi, the most visible constant through the pro team's 30 years here. "When I look at what MLS are doing, and the foundation they are laying, the game is here to stay. We don't need to be NBA, we don't need to be NFL or Major League Baseball. I think we can find a niche in the professional sports hierarchy that allows us to be successful on the field and, equally important, from a business perspective."

In his heart of hearts, Lenarduzzi thought soccer had blown its chance in North America when the NASL closed up shop.

"I thought that I had seen the best of soccer here in the late 70s, early 80s. I honestly didn't think the opportunity would ever come for us to be able to recapture what we had back then," the Whitecaps FC president said, on a day of high emotions.

"I actually think we just caught lightning in a bottle. It came, it took five years to get to Soccer Bowl and 100,000 people welcoming us back in downtown Vancouver ... and then it took five years to go away. The last year of the NASL, there were 45,000 registered soccer players in British Columbia, and in two years it went down to 27,000."

Growing those numbers back, and beyond -- there are now 130,000 registered players in B.C. -- took an enormous amount of work, and the 86ers and Whitecaps, even through lean times and diminished circumstances, were the public face of those efforts.

"We're here because of that," said Garber. "It's part of the character of this franchise. It's [principal owner] Greg Kerfoot's approach to developing the game, his sole focus on soccer, his financial capacity, his style, which fits with the [L.A. owner] Phil Anschutzes of the world, he's the perfect kind of owner for us, he's got a good model that we'd love to replicate in other markets."

Besides the reclusive Kerfoot, the partners are Seagate CEO Steve Luczo, who's one of numerous owners of the Boston Celtics, former Yahoo! head Jeff Mallett, a part-owner of the San Francisco Giants, and basketball star Steve Nash. Pretty strong.

And even so, even with all those kids playing the game and the amazing development/residency system the Whitecaps have built, there are no guarantees of MLS success, here or anywhere, unless the league's model remains sane: Modest payrolls, affordable tickets, small stadiums, atmosphere. The league had a salary cap of $2.3 million in 2008, but teams were allowed a designated player, with only the first $415,000 of that contract counting against the cap. A second "DP" cost $335,000 toward the budget.

Each time the conversation got dragged into the "When will you sign elite players?" neighbourhood, Lenarduzzi did his best to drag it back.

"I don't think you can parachute a marquee player in if you don't have a solid base that he can play with," he said. "It's a great option -- I love the marquee player rule, and I think our ownership certainly has a capacity to go down that road if that's what we want to do. But for the time being, I think we need to make sure we have a solid core of players."

There are cities in MLS, and others trying to get in, that seem an odd fit for the league. This isn't one of them. The pity is that it will be two more years before we get to prove it.

"This is a soccer market," said Garber. "We've spent a lot of time researching. People criticize the amount of time it took us to come to a decision. But we've got to make the right decision. Limited number of teams, we can't afford not to succeed. We came up here for the Whitecaps-Beckham-Galaxy game, saw 48,000 people in that stadium, we've seen the success of the Whitecaps in the USL, we've seen their ratings for the European championships and the EPL, we've seen the redesign concept for BC Place ...

"This is a place where we'll succeed."