BY ALFIE LAU
You can forgive Bobby Lenarduzzi for casting an envious eye south to Seattle.
The Sounders opened their inaugural MLS campaign with three consecutive wins, but, more importantly, they've sold out every ticket for their first five home games at Qwest Field.
As Lenarduzzi and his Vancouver Whitecaps finish their final two seasons at Swangard Stadium before moving into a new refurbished B.C. Place and the MLS in 2011, the soccer club president is taking note of the success only 250 kilometres south.
"It's not just the example in Seattle we're following but the example of Toronto FC," said the Lower Mainland soccer legend. "Not only have we had our staff working with Toronto FC on the sales side, we're trying to learn what we can from Seattle FC."
It helps Lenarduzzi that an old sparring partner and longtime friend, Adrian Hanauer, managed the USL Sounders before becoming a part-owner of the Sounders FC MLS ownership group that includes actor Drew Carey, Hollywood movie executive Joe Roth and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.
"Adrian and I talk, and I've told him that what they're doing in Seattle is unbelievable," said Lenarduzzi. "Everything they've done has been a great decision."
The three areas Lenarduzzi is paying the closest attention to are among the most high-profile decisions the Whitecaps will have to make before taking the field in 2011.
First, on the marketing side, the Sounders have received a tremendous amount of attention because of their jersey and field sponsor: Xbox 360. The jersey incorporates the same green colour scheme as the video game logo, and the stadium, called Qwest Field for Seattle Seahawks football games, is rebranded as the Xbox 360 Pitch.
And teenagers who love playing international soccer on a video game console are flocking to see the highest level of American soccer, as evidenced by opening night March 19 in Seattle.
Could Lenarduzzi be looking at a similar partnership with a Burnaby-based video game company that is one of the leaders in its field?
"Interesting you ask about EA Sports," said Lenarduzzi. "We believe there's a natural connection between our sport and their games, and there have been initial talks, very preliminary, but that's something that both sides will have to look at."
Second, the Sounders have fielded a team that has many local players who either grew up in the region or played university soccer in the state.
Leading that charge is goaltender Kasey Keller, who distinguished himself with stints for Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham of the English Premier League, sandwiching three seasons in Germany tending goal for Borussia Monchengladbach.
Other Sounders FC players who have local connections include defenders Danny Jackson and Zach Scott and forward Roger Levesque, whom Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid made a point of substituting into the Sounders' inaugural match to pay tribute to the local content of the squad.
"Kasey would be a great goalie for them even if he wasn't local," said Lenarduzzi about the Lacey, Washington native.
A comparable - in terms of local connection - for Lenarduzzi is current Houston Dynamo goalie Pat Onstad, the oldest player in the MLS at 41 and a Vancouver native and Canadian National Team veteran.
"I can't comment on any player currently playing in the league because that would be tampering," said Lenarduzzi.
But, in general terms, Lenarduzzi said that adding local players doesn't necessarily mean only looking at established veterans.
"We have a great residency program, and we're producing players like Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ethan Gage and goalie Simon Thomas," said Lenarduzzi. "We'll certainly try to have as many local players as we can, but we're going to place a high value on skill."
The third area Lenarduzzi is paying attention to is the marquee player rule, where teams can bring in high-priced players and only have a portion count toward the salary cap. The best example is Los Angeles bringing in English international David Beckham. Seattle wasn't far behind, bringing in Swedish international and English Premier League stalwart Freddie Ljungberg - who's also a Calvin Klein underwear model.
"Having someone like Ljungberg helps your marketing, no question," said Lenarduzzi. "But your marquee player has to make sense. Does he help his teammates? Is he a team player? When I talked to Adrian, he told me that Ljungberg has been great, and that's why he makes sense for them. We have to be careful when we address our marquee player."
Lenarduzzi is adamant that the final two seasons at Swangard as a USL squad are not only to develop players for the MLS squad.
"We want to win and we want to play an entertaining brand of soccer for our fans," he said. "That's what people who come out to Swangard are paying to see."
The Whitecaps host the Portland Timbers on April 25 starting at 7 p.m.
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