VANCOUVER, BC – The day was May 5, 1974.
It was a cloudy Sunday afternoon at Empire Stadium, a multi-purpose venue at the edge of the city.
And in true Vancouver fashion, the rain was falling. It would have almost seemed wrong if it weren’t.
At any rate, the announced crowd of 17,343 fans in attendance weren’t bothered. And neither were the players.
“It was a good day for soccer,” one of them recalled.
And the weather had little to do with it.
On that spring afternoon, the Vancouver Whitecaps – the city’s new professional soccer team – played host to the San Jose Earthquakes in a match that will forever be ingrained in the history of both clubs.
Not because of the game itself – the visiting ‘Quakes won 2-1 in a penalty shootout – but because of what it represented.
It was the first-ever match for both franchises.
Sam Lenarduzzi, who wore the captain’s armband for the ‘Caps on that day, said it was a “historical event” for both he and the city.
On a personal level, Lenarduzzi said it was always a dream of his to play professional soccer. And there he was, walking out the tunnel with his younger brother Bob in the first professional soccer match Vancouver had ever seen.
If that wasn’t enough, Empire Stadium was just steps away from the Lenarduzzi household.
“You get the chance to look out at the crowd and listen to the national anthem and you say, ‘Holy cow, this finally happened. It’s finally here,’” he recalled. “It was a little bit overwhelming, but in the same token, very gratifying.”
In addition to the Lenarduzzis, who were both defenders, Vancouver’s opening day starting lineup comprised of goalkeeper Sam Nusum, defenders Neil Ellett and Bruce Wilson, midfielders Brian Grant, George McLean and Billy Steven, and strikers Brian Budd, Glen Johnson and Doug Scorse.
Thirteen of the 17 players on the gameday roster were Canadian and many of them were familiar with each other from the local leagues, but they didn’t get off to the start they wanted.
San Jose’s Manni Hernandez opened the scoring just three minutes in. The ‘Caps had some early chances themselves, but simply couldn’t convert.
“Scoring goals in our Sunday leagues was one thing,” said Sam Lenarduzzi. “This was a step up.”
Eventually, Vancouver managed to level the game – and it came from an unlikely source.
Just before halftime, Ellett etched his name into the ‘Caps history books by scoring the first-ever goal in club history.
“Neil was very much a defender,” said Sam Lenarduzzi. “We used to joke because when he took a shot it bounced six times before it got to the goalie.”
The story is told differently depending on who you ask, but some say that’s how this particular goal was scored as well. A partially cleared Johnson corner landed at Ellett’s feet a few yards outside the 18-yard-box and – somehow – the defender’s strike found the back of the net.
“He just kind of directed it through the goal, it made its way through a maze of players, the keeper was unsighted and it went in,” said Bob Lenarduzzi.
As it turned out, that would be Ellett’s only goal in 24 career appearances with the ‘Caps.
“That’s my claim to fame,” Ellett, who now works as a Professional Match Evaluator during Whitecaps FC MLS matches, told the Vancouver Courier. “It felt pretty good obviously because I didn’t score very many.”
Unfortunately for the home side, that was the only goal they would score in regulation time – despite peppering ‘Quakes goalkeeper Mirko Stojanovic with 29 shots on goal.
With the score even at the end of 90 minutes, the match would be decided by a penalty shootout – as per North American Soccer League regulations. After nine shooters apiece, including a goal from 19-year-old Bob Lenarduzzi, San Jose’s Mark Demling converted the 19th shot to give the visitors a 2-1 win.
“It was fun to be a part of,” said Sam Lenarduzzi, “but no one likes to lose.”
The match itself ended in defeat, but for what it represented – the beginning of a now 40-year tradition of professional soccer in Vancouver – it was very much a victory.
“I could have never have looked ahead 40 years and even guessed what the peaks and valleys of the team would be,” said Bob Lenarduzzi, who is now the president of the club. “Out of business, close to out of business, heights of the Soccer Bowl in 1979, but I do feel now with the current Whitecaps … they’re not going anywhere.”