By Tamsyn Burgmann
VANCOUVER, B.C. — With Olympic boasting power in the city's back pocket and global excitement growing for the upcoming World Cup in South Africa, momentum is rolling for Vancouver to debut a new Major League Soccer team.
Officials kicked off the one-year countdown to the Vancouver Whitecaps' ascension to the MLS on Thursday, hours before its 15th season was to be launched.
Expansion teams in Vancouver and Portland will be the 17th and 18th franchises to join the league in March 2011.
"I think the entire community here has shown the world in the past month just what a fantastic community it is for organizing world-class sport and for actually delivering it," Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber told reporters, referring to the 2010 Winter Games.
"This is a really a good time indeed to be getting involved at the highest level in North America with Major League Soccer."
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who was on hand along with B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and MLS President Mark Abbott, said the city demonstrated how much it believes and cares for major sports.
"I think we blew away everyone's expectations, including our own, with how we embraced the opportunity," he said, "and it'll be fantastic to see that passion for sport channelled into Vancouver's Major League Soccer team."
The Whitecaps will play the first few home games of their inaugural season at a 27,500-seat temporary stadium at the Pacific National Exhibition's Empire Fields. Then they'll move to a newly-renovated BC Place, which is being refurbished and getting a new electronic scoreboard and retractable roof for $458 million.
The team, which will play in the USSF D-2 Pro League this season, is currently based at the 5,000-seat Swangard Stadium, in nearby Burnaby.
"We needed that extra space and I think to be able to (play) in a world renowned stadium in your first season in MLS is really quite special," Barber said of BC Place, which hosted 60,000 people for the Olympics' opening ceremonies.
Some 5,000 deposits for Vancouver MLS season tickets sold out in less than 48 hours when they went on sale in March 2009.
There's still much work to do in the coming year, Barber said.
More tickets will soon go on sale, a shirt sponsor must be selected, the team roster must be chosen, a new jersey will be launched and players must train to be in top shape.
The MLS is hoping Vancouver and Portland will follow in the footsteps of Toronto and Seattle, two recent expansion clubs that have proven hugely successful.
Credit needs to be given to those teams, Barber said.
"We're not big enough and arrogant enough to not want to learn and have to learn from other people, so we'll certainly be taking all the learnings we can," he said.
"But I think also we've got a unique city here . . . and I think they will help us make it what it was, just as they did for the Olympic Games."
A Vancouver team was first created in 1974, playing in the now-defunct North American Soccer League. It won that league's championship in 1979.
A new MLS team in Philadelphia makes its debut this season, with its inaugural game against Seattle, only hours south of Vancouver, to be played Thursday night.
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