In 2010 Major League Soccer will welcome the Philadelphia Union to its ranks as the fifteenth team to join the division, and thus far the club has been bolstered by strong ticket sales. The league office will hope Philadelphia’s inclusion will create a strong east coast rivalry with New England, New York, and D.C. United. The new Red Bull Arena is set to become the crown jewel of MLS, while D.C.’s passionate fan base has been a staple of the league since its inception. Yet MLS has had difficulty nurturing the development of these seemingly natural derbies, and pundits remain skeptical whether Union’s arrival will trigger a charged environment.
There is less concern over the potential of emerging rivalries in the Pacific Northwest. After all, there is distinct history between Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, with the latter clubs set to join MLS in 2011. These organizations had large followings in the North American Soccer League, and Seattle’s success during their inaugural MLS campaign is well documented. As Major League Soccer Talk continues to explore the Pacific Northwest soccer scene our focus shifts north of the Canadian border, where this weekend the Vancouver Whitecaps fell to the Montreal Impact in the second leg of the United Soccer Leagues First Division Final. Despite this setback, fans of the Whitecaps understand the unlimited potential of this club, and soon you will too.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, Seattle Sounders FC is renowned for its mass-marketing appeal and professionalized club culture. Meanwhile Portland’s attendance record in the United Soccer Leagues is overwhelming, as the Timbers Army has asserted its position as one of the top supporters groups in North America. This begs the question, what is unique about the Vancouver Whitecaps? What individual traits separate the Whitecaps from their Pacific Northwest brethren?
The answer is straightforward and will undoubtedly provoke a strong response from fans of every club. The Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club has quietly become the most authentic football organization on the continent. While the Sounders have been pushing their brand and Portland has been expanding its fan base, Vancouver has methodically implemented a tiered development structure that is unrivaled in North America. The Whitecaps are unique in many regards, but no other club in this region has a streamlined youth development system that directly supports the first team. For fans of world football this is a familiar concept. Most of the big European or South American clubs have tiered systems that supply the senior side with talented youngsters. This is not commonplace in North America, and a particularly foreign notion in the United States where college soccer is the preferred means of player development.
Vancouver has not taken the route of the “traditional” North American soccer team. Rather this organization has adapted tried and true methods from the global game. To see the importance of Vancouver’s developmental mindset look no further than the club’s ownership contingent. Three years ago Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot placed significant financial support behind the academy system, and the results have been rewarding. Kerfoot will be joined by Steve Luczo, Jeff Mallett, and NBA point guard Steve Nash as part owners in 2011. All four men are excited for top-flight football in Vancouver, but there is no question about the significance of the club’s foundation. Nash, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, recently drew attention to this fact by training with the club’s Residency side in mid-September. Nash is renowned for his passion towards player development, and using his celebrity the Phoenix Suns talisman was able to emphasize the value of cultivating premier footballing talent.