by ALEX CAULFIELD
In 2010 Major League Soccer will welcome the Philadelphia Union to its ranks as the fifteenth team to join the division, and thus far the club has been bolstered by strong ticket sales. The league office will hope Philadelphia’s inclusion will create a strong east coast rivalry with New England, New York, and D.C. United. The new Red Bull Arena is set to become the crown jewel of MLS, while D.C.’s passionate fan base has been a staple of the league since its inception. Yet MLS has had difficulty nurturing the development of these seemingly natural derbies, and pundits remain skeptical whether Union’s arrival will trigger a charged environment.
There is less concern over the potential of emerging rivalries in the Pacific Northwest. After all, there is distinct history between Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, with the latter clubs set to join MLS in 2011. These organizations had large followings in the North American Soccer League, and Seattle’s success during their inaugural MLS campaign is well documented. As Major League Soccer Talk continues to explore the Pacific Northwest soccer scene our focus shifts north of the Canadian border, where this weekend the Vancouver Whitecaps fell to the Montreal Impact in the second leg of the United Soccer Leagues First Division Final. Despite this setback, fans of the Whitecaps understand the unlimited potential of this club, and soon you will too.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, Seattle Sounders FC is renowned for its mass-marketing appeal and professionalized club culture. Meanwhile Portland’s attendance record in the United Soccer Leagues is overwhelming, as the Timbers Army has asserted its position as one of the top supporters groups in North America. This begs the question, what is unique about the Vancouver Whitecaps? What individual traits separate the Whitecaps from their Pacific Northwest brethren?
The answer is straightforward and will undoubtedly provoke a strong response from fans of every club. The Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club has quietly become the most authentic football organization on the continent. While the Sounders have been pushing their brand and Portland has been expanding its fan base, Vancouver has methodically implemented a tiered development structure that is unrivaled in North America. The Whitecaps are unique in many regards, but no other club in this region has a streamlined youth development system that directly supports the first team. For fans of world football this is a familiar concept. Most of the big European or South American clubs have tiered systems that supply the senior side with talented youngsters. This is not commonplace in North America, and a particularly foreign notion in the United States where college soccer is the preferred means of player development.
Vancouver has not taken the route of the “traditional” North American soccer team. Rather this organization has adapted tried and true methods from the global game. To see the importance of Vancouver’s development mindset look no further than the club’s ownership contingent. Three years ago Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot placed significant financial support behind the academy system, and the results have been rewarding. Kerfoot will be joined by Steve Luczo, Jeff Mallett, and NBA point guard Steve Nash as part owners in 2011. All four men are excited for top-flight football in Vancouver, but there is no question about the significance of the club’s foundation. Nash, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, recently drew attention to this fact by training with the club’s Residency side in mid-September. Nash is renowned for his passion towards player development, and using his celebrity the Phoenix Suns talisman was able to emphasize the value of cultivating premier footballing talent.
For the Whitecaps, the benefit of this system is evident. After spells with Leeds United and Dutch side FC Groningen, Residency product Marcus Haber was promoted to the first team this season. The local product earned USL First Division Rookie of the Year honors through his outstanding play, and the forward is a player to watch in the coming years. Vancouver’s academy houses and trains fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year-old players from across the world. While most USL and MLS clubs are happy to take on journeyman players from abroad or substandard domestic talent, the Whitecaps have become self-sufficient. The club has already sold one Residency player to German side FC Energie Cottbus, a unique occurrence in our part of the world. After all, how many USL or MLS clubs sell their youth products to European clubs?
The Whitecaps are pioneers in this regard, and by looking at the organization’s current roster Vancouver’s global ambitions are apparent. There are players that hail from England, the Caribbean, and Nigeria. This is not your traditional USL first team, and Vancouver’s reputation as an international city will only enhance the club’s roster when the Whitecaps enter MLS in 2011. The Whitecaps’ current youth prospects are indeed impressive, as I had a chance to watch them on two occasions in 2009. While working for the Seattle Wolves Football Club in the USL Premier Development League tier, many of our players commented on the quality of Vancouver’s youngsters. Players like Gagandeep Dosanjh (18) and Russell Teibert (16) may find their way into Vancouver’s MLS side in a few years, as these players are incredibly gifted with the ball. But clearly that is the idea. Vancouver wants to utilize their extensive scouting network and promote from within their Residency program.
In a recent interview with USSoccerPlayers.com, Vancouver President Bob Lenarduzzi cemented this fact, stating, “The academy was a cornerstone objective when I got involved with the owner six years ago. One of the things I suggested to him [Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot] was if he wanted to be in it for the long haul, we really needed to have a hand in our own destiny, hence, the start-up of the significant investment of the Residency program.”
In Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps have a football-savvy President leading the way. Pedigree doesn’t begin to define the Vancouver native. Lenarduzzi has over thirty-five years of experience in the game as a player, manager, general manager, and president. He is famously remembered in Canada for nearly scoring against the USSR in the 1986 Wolrd Cup Finals (the country’s only appearance), and he holds the record for most appearances in the North American Soccer League (312) where he was a stalwart for the Whitecaps. He has been a part of this football club every step of the way, from NASL glory, through the purgatorial A-League years, and onto a rebirth in Major League Soccer.
Lenarduzzi is a revelation in North American football management, as a number of MLS clubs are run by executives that lack football-specific experience. Lenarduzzi has managed the Canadian national team, and he served as Vancouver’s general manager from 1988-1993 and 2000-2001 (then the Vancouver 86ers). He is also not the only one who understands the potential of this sport, as the club has a skilled front office in place that has effectively marketed the USL Whitecaps. The club currently plays at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, British Columbia, and the ground is routinely stuffed to its 5,300 spectator capacity. This figure will increase when the club moves to a renovated BC Place Stadium for MLS, but in the USL the club has done a remarkable job of keeping demand for tickets high. The Whitecaps front office has accomplished this by appealing to both hardcore football supporters and the family-oriented element, a remarkable accomplishment when contrasted with the mom and pops approach of other second division clubs.
Like the Sounders, Vancouver has etched a clear direction for itself. This club has a proud identity that has been built upon the foundations of a unique development system and a knowledgeable club culture. In the USSoccerPlayers.com interview, Lenarduzzi expressed his desire to emulate Seattle’s success at the next level, “If you look at the success of Seattle, a lot of theirs’ has been a result of the imports they’ve brought in, they’ve all done well for them – Montero, Hurtado, Osvaldo Alonso was a USL 1 player last year, he came from Cuba. They won the Open Cup, which was great to do in their first year and that brings with it qualification for Champions League next year, which is great from a playing perspective and they’re getting crowds in excess of 30,000.”
The Sounders may be a tough act to follow, but if any club can walk stride for stride with Seattle it is Vancouver. Many of the club’s current players will be able to contribute in MLS. Youngsters like Haber and Ethan Gage, who spent time with Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt this summer, will continue to hone their skills and could be every bit as valuable to Vancouver as Osvaldo Alonso has been to the Sounders. If nothing else, we know that the Whitecaps’ propensity to develop young players is not to be underestimated and the club will undoubtedly produce a portion of its own talent.
Moreover, Vancouver’s fan base gets it – they understand football culture. Seattle and Portland both have excellent fan bases, but even these cities have to combat the ignorance of the traditional American sports hierarchy. Vancouver worships the National Hockey League’s Canucks, but there is more than enough room in British Columbia for top-flight football. Vancouver’s multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan population is soccer mad, and when I went to Swangard Stadium for the regular season finale against Cleveland City I was impressed with the football IQ of these supporters. Even in Seattle it is not common place to hear conversation about the intricacies of zonal marking and why the offside trap isn’t working. At Qwest Field you get the impression that some fans are there to ride the Sounder wave and experience their first football rush. This is not the case in Vancouver. Whitecaps supporters have a keen eye and are quick analyze the ebb and flow of a match.
When plans for MLS expansion were announced earlier this year, Vancouver sold 5,000 season ticket deposits in forty-eight hours. The appetite for the beautiful game in this Pacific Northwest metropolis is apparent, and the club’s next step will be to convert USL season ticket packages and the Swangard waiting list into MLS deposits. Once this is accomplished Vancouver will have a supporters base of around 10,000, half the capacity of the soon to be renovated BC Place. Vancouver’s USL success is encouraging both on and off the pitch, as the Whitecaps claimed the 2008 First Division title and finished as runners up this term. Interest in the club is high because of these achievments, and the advent of MLS has people talking. Vancouver’s USL foundations are stronger than Seattle’s were in 2008, and with an organized ownership contingent and a streamlined football philosophy all the pieces seem to be in place for the Whitecaps’ emergence.
I have been jokingly accused by my media colleagues in Seattle of being pro-Portland or pro-Vancouver. The truth is I am pro-football. If the beautiful game is to truly thrive in our part of the world well-run and strongly supported clubs are needed to elevate the sport’s status. Football’s stock in North America has never been higher than it is right now, and this notion is sure to increase in 2011. Vancouver will clearly be a large part of this movement, and for that reason I am grateful. Philadelphia will add something to the mix in six months time, but for those of us on the left coast the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver triumvirate is simply too enticing to ignore.