By Jeff Paterson
Much has been said and written about Vancouver’s bid to land a Major League Soccer franchise to begin play in 2011. And as sports wagers go, it looks like Vancouver joining the top league in North America is a sure bet.
Less clear, however, is exactly what the Whitecaps will be getting themselves into and what they’ll be able to provide fans in terms of the level of on-field competition on a regular basis. There’s no denying that MLS teams have bigger names and bigger payrolls than teams like the Whitecaps that compete in the United Soccer League’s First Division.
But is the level of play so much better that the ’Caps will be able to attract 20,000 fans to a Major League Soccer game downtown, instead of the 5,000 loyal fans they have for USL home games at Swangard Stadium?
They certainly hope so. And when you look at the 48,000 the Caps attracted for last November’s visit by David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy, it’s clear there are enough casual soccer fans and stargazers out there to put big crowds in the seats on occasion.
Keep in mind that the Whitecaps held the Galaxy to a scoreless draw that night and then beat the Beckham bunch earlier this year in a friendly in Edmonton. The ’Caps also earned a 1-0 victory against Toronto FC on Canada Day, and a week later battled that same MLS club to a 2-2 draw at Swangard.
And Montreal, another team currently in the USL, won a three-team round-robin tournament with Vancouver and Toronto to earn the right to represent Canada in the next round of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) champions-league qualifying.
So there’s ample evidence to suggest that United Soccer League teams can hold their own against Major League Soccer sides, and that the gap in talent is far smaller than MLS would like fans to believe. And with expansion franchises in Seattle (next year) and Philadelphia (in 2010) set to join MLS before another round of expansion for 2011—the round expected to include Vancouver—will the talent pool be able to meet the needs of MLS and its newest clubs?
Then again, MLS continues to grow in size and scope, and Beckham’s arrival may signal the start of a European invasion (or perhaps from other parts of the world), giving more teams access to names with big drawing potential.
But even beyond the star power that the United Soccer League cannot provide, MLS appears to be a step up from the echelon on which the Whitecaps are playing.
“I think when you strip away everything else, certainly there are four of five players on MLS rosters that perhaps on paper are a level above what we have in USL,” the ’Caps director of soccer operations, Bob Lenarduzzi, told the Straight after the club’s July 25 announcement that it was submitting a formal application to join Major League Soccer in three years’ time.
But Lenarduzzi has been around long enough to know that lower-level teams often raise their game when facing more talented clubs.
“When it comes down to a competition between the two, it’s much like what we find in every other country in the world when it comes to cup play: inevitably the championship teams will knock off the premiership sides,” he added. “Now, over the course of a season, can you sustain that? Probably not.”
If the Whitecaps are granted entry into Major League Soccer in 2011, there will likely be significant carryover from the team that plays in the USL the previous year. But in order to be competitive—and this is a city that has seen championship soccer in the past and likely won’t accept too many years of expansion woes—the Whitecaps will have to upgrade their talent base.
That’s why Lenarduzzi and his staff will be keeping a close eye on the transition in Seattle, where the USL’s Sounders will make the jump to MLS for next year. A club that struggles to put 2,500 people in the seats for USL games has already sold 16,000 season tickets for next year. They’ve been able to convince soccer (and sports) fans in the Emerald City that they’re going to the big leagues. And the Sounders will be under the gun to produce.
“In the case of Seattle, they’re in USL this year, they’re going to be in MLS next year, and their roster will likely significantly change from this year to next,” said Lenarduzzi. “When you look at our league and the success we’ve had [against MLS teams], it would appear there isn’t a great deal of difference.
"But there is that subtle difference that you would see if, in fact, you were playing against that opposition over the course of the season. There’s no doubt that MLS is the top level of soccer in North America.”
Although there have been recent reports that Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini is also eyeing an MLS expansion franchise for this city, it would seem the original bid by Lenarduzzi, on behalf of Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot and backed by NBA superstar Steve Nash, is the front-runner. MLS is expected to announce its expansion cities for 2011 before its championship game in November.
The Whitecaps are confident their bid will be accepted by MLS, just as they believe Major League Soccer will be accepted by the people of Vancouver. If they’re correct on both counts, the sport could very well reach levels of popularity not seen here since the glory days of the original Whitecaps, 30 years ago.