VANCOUVER – On Thursday, Vancouver Whitecaps FC presented Jay DeMerit as their first-ever MLS signing.
Few professional athletes can brag about being the first player ever signed to a franchise, but Glen Johnson, Pat Onstad and Domenic Mobilio are three players who’ve had that honour. We take a walk down memory lane to relive their humble beginnings and their paths that lead them to play professional soccer in Vancouver.
While DeMerit will go down as the initial player on the MLS Whitecaps roster, he won’t exactly be the first player in club history. That honor goes to Johnson.
“I was the original Vancouver Whitecap,” he boasted proudly.
Indeed, Johnson was the first-ever signing of the NASL Vancouver Whitecaps in 1974. He was a face that people recognized, a local lad who, in his youth, was bestowed the title of Vancouver Sun Soccer Boy of the Year.
“I grew up as a young boy in Burnaby playing with Norburn soccer club,” Johnson remembered fondly. “Over the years with Norburn, I played with guys like Bruce Wilson and Buzz Parsons who are also members of the [Canadian Soccer] Hall of Fame and played for the Whitecaps accordingly.”
Success in youth soccer made Johnson seemingly destined for a pro career, but without a local professional club around continuing to play soccer wasn’t always in the cards.
“I was going to become a dentist,” Johnson said. “I was playing [soccer] in a semi-pro league in 1969 and that’s kind of when my life changed.”
Johnson planned on attending the University of Hawaii, where he would play on the football team as a field-goal kicker, but that plan never panned out. West Bromwich Albion were touring North America after winning the FA Cup that year, and when they stopped in Vancouver he had his chance to shine.
“The Sunday morning after grad I was playing in a game for the Vancouver Spartans, and I knew [former West Brom manager] Alan Ashman would be attending the game,” Johnson recalled. “I had a fairly good game – I scored six and we won 6-2. He came down to the pitch and asked me if I wanted to go to the UK with him. I said immediately, 'Absolutely, yes I would love to.'”
After a three-month trial, Johnson signed a pro contract. He played for the club’s youth teams and then in the reserve league before finally making his debut the following year against Blackpool, becoming the first Canadian-born player to play in England’s top tier. While he was accepted by the players and the fans alike, three years later he was back in Vancouver, no longer playing professionally.
“Fortunately for me, Herb Capozzi and Denny Veitch decided to invent the Vancouver Whitecaps,” Johnson said.
As the first person asked to play for the team, Johnson will be able to relate to the emotions felt by DeMerit on Thursday, though things were quite different back in the beginning.
“It was their first-ever press conference and it was the same day they released the name Whitecaps,” Johnson recalled. “Herb, Denny and myself were at that press conference. I actually signed with the Whitecaps before they signed their first coach, Jimmy Easton.”
One aspect where Johnson will likely not be able to relate will be with the terms of the contract.
“Most of the players [on the 1974 team] had daytime jobs. I worked in a retail sporting goods business,” Johnson said. “We would work every day, workout every night, and play home or away on weekends. “
Though times may have changed, the pleasure of suiting up for the first Whitecaps team of the modern era will likely feel the same as it did in the '70s.
“It was a challenge, but it was something we loved.”
Golden Gloves and Golden Boot
Johnson and his NASL Whitecaps teammates inspired a generation of Vancouver soccer stars. Among those adoring fans was Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad.
“We had season tickets at old Empire Stadium and also at BC Place,” Onstad remembered. “I was about nine or 10 years old and I loved it. I used to be one of the kids that would hop over the fence and race onto the field [after the game] to try to get an autograph.”
Having heroes to cheer on made a great impact on Onstad, who has twice been named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.
“Professional sports were the ultimate thing, whether it was the Whitecaps or the Canucks," said Onstad, also a big-time hockey fan. “I felt like those guys walked on water, so it’s important to have that professional team.”
A huge void was left by the Whitecaps after the NASL dissolved in 1984. Fortunately for Onstad, it wasn’t long before the Vancouver 86ers were spawned.
“It was nice to have the 86ers bring professional soccer back,” Onstad said. “I think the timing was just right. They gave me an opportunity and a platform to continue on in professional soccer.”
After leading the University of British Columbia to three Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championships, the three-time MLS Cup winner earned his first professional contract, becoming one of two original players signed to play for the 86ers in 1987.
“I was like a kid in a candy store when I knew that Bob Lenarduzzi was going to be my coach and Carl Valentine was going to play on that team,” Onstad recalled. “It was a pretty exciting time for a kid growing up in Vancouver and it was nice to be known as one of the original 86ers.”
While Onstad was indeed one of two initial players signed to play for the club, it was the other name that drew the most attention. Mobilio was the golden boy of soccer in Vancouver at the time and was consequently the subject of greater expectations.
“Dom was the bigger name,” Onstad said. “He was a young kid who’d broke through with the national team and had a bright future ahead of him.”
The future was bright indeed for the 18-year-old Mobilio. He went on to become the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Canadian Soccer League. Sadly, the talented striker unexpectedly passed away in 2004 at the age of 35, but his legacy remains firmly entrenched within the club. The Whitecaps’ leading scorer after every season is awarded the Domenic Mobilio Golden Boot award.
DeMerit will now step into the shoes of Johnson, Onstad and Mobilio. What his legacy will be remains to be seen, but Onstad is confident that he’s made a good choice.
“At this stage now with MLS coming around, the Vancouver Whitecaps will be one of the leaders and the bigger clubs," he said. "They certainly have aspirations to be the biggest club in the league. I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity for any player to sign with that club.”