This will be the second time that I am having to say goodbye to Empire, but it feels a lot different this time around. Just like this season, back in the 1983 North American Soccer League (NASL) season we knew that we were moving into a world-class new stadium downtown known as BC Place. However, at that time I remember thinking ‘I can’t wait to leave Empire Stadium’.
When I played for the ‘Caps in the NASL days I was in my early twenties. I arrived in 1979, the year we won the Soccer bowl, and I have been blessed to have had a special relationship with the fans of Vancouver. But as a young adult you cannot always appreciate the things that happen to you when you are this young. Such was the case with Empire Stadium. When I played there the turf was so thin it felt like it was painted on, it had a crown on the pitch which made it difficult to play on, and the stands needed a lot of TLC to give it a lift.
But it was in the perfect location on sunny days with the mountains in the background, and on game day, it had the best atmosphere.
Here we are in the 2011 Major League Soccer Season (MLS) and we've again had the privilege of experiencing all the magic of Empire. The weather has been terrific, and the view as scenic as ever. The entertainment on the field has been equally exciting.
Now, in perhaps our biggest match of the season against rivals Seattle Sounders FC, we are about to play our final game at Empire Field and move back downtown. This time, however, I have more appreciation of what Empire means to me and what it has meant to the City of Vancouver.
I have had too many conversations to remember regarding the days of the Vancouver Whitecaps at the old Empire Stadium and what it meant to the fans of the ‘Caps in the NASL days. Fans always had fond memories of old Empire, and what a great atmosphere it was. Many felt like it was not just going to a soccer game, but that Empire was the meeting point for a real social event. A number of couples I bumped into said that they would lose touch with friends during the winter months, but come the return of the NASL season in the summer, they would meet in the stands at Empire and renew their friendships.
When I realized my dream in January and returned to the Whitecaps as club ambassador, I promised myself that I would embrace every moment of this first MLS season with the ‘Caps, and I have done that so far.
This is why leaving Empire this time around is different.
Opening day on March 19 at Empire Field this year was a special moment in my life. It was made all the more memorable as the ‘Caps made a triumphant return to the big stage with a 4-2 win over Toronto FC in front of a sellout crowd in their MLS debut. I can say with all honesty that I have enjoyed every moment, and every game at Empire Field. The fans, the consistently electric atmospheres, and the performance and heart of the Whitecaps players on home turf have been fantastic, especially in what has been a difficult season.
I am very excited to be going back into the heart of the city to see the team play on Bell Pitch downtown at a refurbished BC Place Stadium, but I am now leaving Empire with a new found respect for what it did for the game of soccer in the NASL days, and the great start it has given us as we look to find our feet in MLS. So though we say farewell to Empire, the memories we’ve had will last a lifetime.