By Ron Sudlow (CP)
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Stepping up to top-tier soccer in North America will be a year-long challenge for the Vancouver Whitecaps but the euphoria of the 2010 Winter Olympics will help.
"I think it will enhance and accelerate our preparations towards our Major League Soccer debut," said Paul Barber, introduced Wednesday as the chief executive officer of the MLS expansion club.
"The people of this city have demonstrated a great passion for sport and for watching live sport and that's a really big deal for us at the Whitecaps."
Barber, former executive director of Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League, joins the Whitecaps one year before they and the Portland Timbers enter MLS.
In the meantime, he's looking at two stadium moves, selling tickets, building a training facility, revamped crest and uniform designs and getting a sponsor's name on the club shirts.
That's in addition to overseeing this year's club that will play in the new nine-team North American Soccer League, the Whitecaps' women's club team, residency and youth development programs.
In introducing Barber, Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi remembered the 100,000 fans who cheered the team at Robson Square after winning the old NASL's Soccer Bowl in 1979.
"I don't think we've ever seen a crowd like that since, other than what's taken place over the 17 days of the Olympics," Lenarduzzi said of the throngs who gathered at the square during the Games.
"We're going to be fortunate to piggyback on the opportunity of what has been an unbelievable event and the history of our club, the fact that we have been at those levels before."
When MLS announced last year that the Whitecaps had been granted an expansion franchise, the initial offering of 5,000 season tickets sold out in 48 hours.
The second ticket marketing phase is coming soon but the club will be competing with the NHL Canucks who are approaching 300 consecutive sellouts, and the CFL B.C. Lions.
"You can't miss it in the media," Barber said of the Canucks. "Every day, page after page. Fantastic sport. But I also think there's big room for soccer."
Barber said it was easy to take the high profile of Tottenham and the Premiership for granted.
"This is a different kind of challenge," he said. "It's still a big brand, it's still a big league here, there's still a huge number of people playing the game but there's a huge opportunity to grow it further."
The Whitecaps will make 2010 their final season at 5,288-seat Swangard Stadium in suburban Burnaby.
Their next move will be to Empire Bowl, a temporary, 30,000-seat stadium on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in the city's East End.
The Bowl, erected on the site of the former Empire Stadium, the original home of the Whitecaps and Lions, will house the two clubs while a retractable roof is fitted to downtown B.C. Place Stadium.
"It's not just a big step up on the field, it's a big step up off the field," said Barber, who will remain as a director with the north London club, the world's 11th-richest soccer franchise.
His position with 'Spurs could help the Whitecaps in player acquisitions.
"It's a great link to have an executive sit on the board of a premiership club and hopefully be able to use the relationship both ways for the benefit of both clubs," Barber said.
"I've just got to get up early for some board meetings, that's all."
His hiring here raised eyebrows in the soccer world.
It happened after Whitecaps part owners Jeff Mallett, a former Yahoo executive, and NBA star Steve Nash met him when they unsuccessfully sought to purchase an interest in Tottenham.
"Initially there was surprise because most people knew that I was with the club I'd supported as a kid," Barber said. "The second reaction was, 'are there any jobs for me?"'
NOTES: A Whitecaps game was the first sports event held at B.C. Place Stadium in 1983 ... attendance was 60,000 ... Lenarduzzi limped to Wednesday's media event on crutches after having a hip replacement ... he blamed it on playing and training for a decade on the old unforgiving artificial turf at Empire Stadium.
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