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Bob Frid

Back in the big time: Looking back at Whitecaps FC's inaugural season in Major League Soccer

There was drama, there was excitement, and though Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s inaugural season in Major League Soccer proved challenging, fans of the Blue and White can reflect on some great moments in 2011.

The anticipation of the club’s first season in MLS was two years in the making following the league’s announcement that Whitecaps FC would become the 17th team – and the second Canadian club – to join MLS on March 18, 2009. With a clever marketing campaign and the signing of new players – which included the club’s first Designated Player in French striker Eric Hassli on March 4 - Vancouver’s return to North American soccer’s top flight had finally arrived.

The kickoff to the inaugural MLS campaign came on a cold and wet January 24 when preseason training camp opened at Empire Field on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition. Though it was a temporary facility in East Vancouver, Empire Field served as the team’s home stadium and base for much of the 2011 season. The two-month preseason included two trips to Arizona, where Vancouver faced several MLS rivals in friendly action. In early March, Whitecaps FC took part in the first-ever Cascadia Summit versus Pacific Northwest rivals Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC before wrapping up preseason on a cold and wet March 12 at Empire Field, as Vancouver hosted defending MLS Cup champions Colorado Rapids in a closed-door friendly.

Then came March 19, and one of the most famous days in Whitecaps FC history. Spring sunshine greeted a sold-out and enthusiastic crowd of 22,592 at Empire Field for the club’s debut match in MLS. Fittingly, the ‘Caps hosted Canada’s first MLS club in Toronto FC in their season opener, and Vancouver’s performance that day has already become part of club folklore. In what was a 4-2 victory, Hassli scored the club’s first goal in MLS before celebrating in iconic fashion following his second goal that day (pictured). Terry Dunfield and Atiba Harris also found the scoresheet in the first-ever all-Canadian MLS contest.

Expectations that Whitecaps FC would have a competitive first season in MLS grew after March 19, but the quality of North America’s top flight soon gave the club and their supporters a strong dose of reality – even though there were some exciting moments along the way. Few will forget Vancouver’s incredible comeback in their second home match versus Sporting Kansas City, as Brazilian striker Camilo introduced himself to the MLS stage with two goals in time added on at the end of the game, as the ‘Caps overturned a three-goal deficit to draw 3-3 on April 2. There was also the valiant efforts of a nine-man ‘Caps side that came within seconds of a home win four days later, but only for New England Revolution to earn a very late 1-1 draw. In fact, the months of April and May were lean for Whitecaps FC, as a second league win remained elusive. Their only victory during that period came away to North American Soccer League side – and 2012 MLS expansion club – Montreal Impact in the 2011 Nutrilite Canadian Championship semifinal, first leg, on April 27. By the end of May, the club had parted ways with head coach Teitur Thordarson and goalkeeping coach Mike Salmon. Director of soccer operations Tom Soehn took charge of the ‘Caps for the remainder of the season.

It was not until Soehn’s fourth game in charge that Whitecaps FC earned their second league win when Alain Rochat’s fine strike earned a 1-0 home victory over Philadelphia Union on June 18. Yet, it was a week earlier on June 11 when Soehn and the ‘Caps played their part in a highly-memorable Cascadia Cup derby clash versus Sounders FC in Seattle. The 2-2 draw will forever be remembered for Hassli’s spectacular volleyed equalizer that will surely be considered as one of the best goals to be scored in league history.

Still, the challenges of the season remained, with the ‘Caps enduring two straight defeats away to arch-rivals Toronto FC either side of Canada Day (July 1). While the MLS loss on June 29 was tough enough, the July 2 defeat to The Reds in the decisive second leg of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship final was especially difficult to swallow, as Whitecaps FC had led the original second-leg match 1-0 on May 25 before the game was abandoned at Toronto’s BMO Field due to unplayable field conditions. July also provided a major triumph over adversity, as club staff and field crews overcame heavy rainfall to a temporarily-laid natural grass pitch at Empire Field to stage the Herbalife World Football Challenge friendly between Vancouver and English Premier League giants Manchester City FC. A crowd of 24,074 saw the ‘Caps put in a solid effort in a 2-1 defeat to their English visitors on July 18.

August saw home wins versus Chicago Fire and MLS Cup finalists Houston Dynamo, as well as a view to next season when Scotsman Martin Rennie was hired as the club’s head coach from the start of the 2012 season on August 9. In September, Davide Chiumiento added to the list of spectacular MLS goals in 2011 with his cracking finish in a 1-1 draw at New York Red Bulls. Later that month, the club brought their short, but eventful, spell at Empire Field to an end with a disappointing 3-1 defeat to Cascadia Cup rivals Seattle on September 24.

As the ‘Caps moved into October, they also moved into their newly-refurbished home at BC Place. A sold-out crowd of 21,000 took in the first MLS match at the downtown Vancouver stadium, but there was more disappointment after Pacific Northwest rivals Portland Timbers won 1-0 on October 2. Soehn’s side rebounded and claimed their first league win at BC Place versus Real Salt Lake (October 6) before defeating D.C. United at home on October 12. With no playoff soccer to look forward to, Whitecaps FC wrapped up their inaugural season with a 2-1 home defeat to Colorado on October 22. Individually, Camilo proved to be the standout player for the ‘Caps in 2011, as the South American earned the club’s Player of the Year award and the Domenic Mobilio Golden Boot as Vancouver's top scorer with 13 goals in all competitions.

Not long after closing the book on the 2011 campaign, the Rennie era began with a week-long off-season training camp in early November, as the Scottish coach familiarized himself with his new squad. The camp helped the 36-year-old make some important roster decisions before the MLS Expansion Draft on November 23 and the league’s Re-Entry Draft Process in early December.

While 2011 was a difficult first season for Whitecaps FC in MLS, there is much to look forward to in 2012. Rennie’s side – which will include newly-acquired South Korean star Young-Pyo Lee – will have the chance to firmly establish themselves on Bell Pitch at BC Place from the start of the campaign. Like last season, another Canadian club will help raise the curtain, as expansion club Montreal make their league debut at BC Place on March 10, 2012.

Whitecaps FC wish their fans a Happy New Year and the very best for 2012. See you for ‘MLS First Kick’ at BC Place on March 10!