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The Evolution of Vancouver Whitecaps FC

584 whitecaps cp 0807011 The Evolution of Vancouver Whitecaps FC

A team effort; Vancouver has built an organic club culture

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.

Haber1 The Evolution of Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Marcus Haber was named 2009 USL 1 Rookie of the Year

For the Whitecaps, the benefit of this system is evident. After spells with Leeds United and Dutch side FC Groningen, Residency product Marcus Haber was promoted to the first team this season. The local product earned USL First Division Rookie of the Year honors through his outstanding play, and the forward is a player to watch in the coming years. Vancouver’s academy houses and trains fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year-old players from across the world. While most USL and MLS clubs are happy to take on journeyman players from abroad or substandard domestic talent, the Whitecaps have become self-sufficient. The club has already sold one Residency player to German side FC Energie Cottbus, a unique occurrence in our part of the world. After all, how many USL or MLS clubs sell their youth products to European clubs?

The Whitecaps are pioneers in this regard, and by looking at the organization’s current roster Vancouver’s global ambitions are apparent. There are players that hail from England, the Caribbean, and Nigeria. This is not your traditional USL first team, and Vancouver’s reputation as an international city will only enhance the club’s roster when the Whitecaps enter MLS in 2011. The Whitecaps’ current youth prospects are indeed impressive, as I had a chance to watch them on two occasions in 2009. While working for the Seattle Wolves Football Club in the USL Premier Development League, many of our players commented on the quality of Vancouver’s youngsters. Players like Gagandeep Dosanjh (18) and Russell Teibert (16) may find their way into Vancouver’s MLS side in a few years, as these players are incredibly gifted with the ball.  But clearly that is the idea. Vancouver wants to utilize their extensive scouting network and promote from within their Residency program.

In a recent interview with USSoccerPlayers.com, Vancouver President Bob Lenarduzzi cemented this fact, stating, “The academy was a cornerstone objective when I got involved with the owner six years ago. One of the things I suggested to him [Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot] was if he wanted to be in it for the long haul, we really needed to have a hand in our own destiny, hence, the start-up of the significant investment of the Residency program.”

In Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps have a football-savvy President leading the way. Pedigree doesn’t begin to define the Vancouver native. Lenarduzzi has over thirty-five years of experience in the game as a player, manager, general manager, and president. He is famously remembered in Canada for nearly scoring against the USSR in the 1986 Wolrd Cup Finals (the country’s only appearance), and he holds the record for most appearances in the North American Soccer League (312), where he was a stalwart for the Whitecaps. He has been a part of this football club every step of the way – from NASL glory, through the purgatorial A-League years, and onto a rebirth in Major League Soccer.

lenarduzzi 584cp 0903181 300x169 The Evolution of Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi

Lenarduzzi is a revelation in North American football management, as a number of MLS clubs are run by executives that lack football-specific experience. Lenarduzzi has managed the Canadian national team, and he served as Vancouver’s general manager from 1988-1993 and 2000-2001 (then the Vancouver 86ers). He is also not the only one who understands the potential of this sport, as the club has a skilled front office in place that has effectively marketed the USL Whitecaps. The club currently plays at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, British Columbia, and the ground is routinely stuffed to its 5,300 spectator capacity. This figure will increase when the club moves to a renovated BC Place Stadium for MLS, but in the USL the club has done a remarkable job of keeping demand for tickets high. The Whitecaps front office has accomplished this by appealing to both hardcore football supporters and the family-oriented element, a remarkable accomplishment when contrasted with the mom and pops approach of other second division clubs.

Like the Sounders, Vancouver has etched a clear direction for itself. This club has a proud identity that has been built upon the foundations of a unique development system and a knowledgeable club culture. In the USSoccerPlayers.com interview, Lenarduzzi expressed his desire to emulate Seattle’s success at the next level, “If you look at the success of Seattle, a lot of theirs’ has been a result of the imports they’ve brought in, they’ve all done well for them – Montero, Hurtado, Osvaldo Alonso was a USL 1 player last year, he came from Cuba. They won the Open Cup, which was great to do in their first year and that brings with it qualification for Champions League next year, which is great from a playing perspective and they’re getting crowds in excess of 30,000.”

The Sounders may be a tough act to follow, but if any club can walk stride for stride with Seattle it is Vancouver. Many of the club’s current players will be able to contribute in MLS. Youngsters like Haber and Ethan Gage, who spent time with Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt this summer, will continue to hone their skills and could be every bit as valuable to Vancouver as Osvaldo Alonso has been to the Sounders. If nothing else, we know that the Whitecaps’ propensity to develop young players is not to be underestimated and the club will undoubtedly produce a portion of its own talent.

SOUTHSIDERS2 The Evolution of Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Vancouver supporters generate an intimate atmosphere inside Swangard

Moreover, Vancouver’s fan base gets it – they understand football culture. Seattle and Portland both have excellent fan bases, but even these cities have to combat the ignorance of the traditional American sports hierarchy. Vancouver worships the National Hockey League’s Canucks, but there is more than enough room in British Columbia for top-flight football. Vancouver’s multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan population is soccer mad, and when I went to Swangard Stadium for the regular season finale against Cleveland City I was impressed with the football IQ of these supporters. Even in Seattle it is not common place to hear conversation about the intricacies of zonal marking and why the offside trap isn’t working. At Qwest Field you get the impression that some fans are there to ride the Sounder wave and experience their first football rush. This is not the case in Vancouver. Whitecaps supporters have a keen eye and are quick analyze the ebb and flow of a match.

When plans for MLS expansion were announced earlier this year, Vancouver sold 5,000 season ticket deposits in forty-eight hours. The appetite for the beautiful game in this Pacific Northwest metropolis is apparent, and the club’s next step will be to convert USL season ticket packages and the Swangard waiting list into MLS deposits. Once this is accomplished Vancouver will have a supporters base of around 10,000, half the capacity of the soon to be renovated BC Place. Vancouver’s USL success is encouraging both on and off the pitch, as the Whitecaps claimed the 2008 First Division title and finished as runners up this term. Interest in the club is high because of these achievments, and the advent of MLS has people talking. Vancouver’s USL foundations are stronger than Seattle’s were in 2008, and with an organized ownership contingent and a streamlined football philosophy all the pieces seem to be in place for the Whitecaps’ emergence.

I have been jokingly accused by my media colleagues in Seattle of being pro-Portland or pro-Vancouver. The truth is I am pro-football. If the beautiful game is to truly thrive in our part of the world well-run and strongly supported clubs are needed to elevate the sport’s status. Football’s stock in North America has never been higher than it is right now, and this notion is sure to increase in 2011. Vancouver will clearly be a large part of this movement, and for that reason I am grateful. Philadelphia will add something to the mix in six months time, but for those of us on the left coast the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver triumvirate is simply too enticing to ignore.

28 Responses to The Evolution of Vancouver Whitecaps FC

  1. Lars says:

    Nice article.

    One issue: Philly is going to have a TFC-Philly derby whether they want it or not. Toronto supporters want to go to a place that’s actually respectable and have a respectable derby…not like the one with the blood crazy, low class Columbus Crew supporters.

  2. CoconutMonkey says:

    Good Stuff. It’s always great to hear about proper clubs doing well. We need more teams with this kind of vision in North America.

    Now if they only did something about that logo… ;)

  3. man99utd says:

    A serious youth development system….this is what needs to take place throughout the MLS. We need to grab our best talent before the rest of the world spots them. We may still lose a few but the price to be alot higher. Superb article.

  4. CarlosT says:

    Vancouver is one of my favorite cities in the whole world and I have a lot of respect for the Whitecaps. I’m already looking forward to some beautiful trips up to Vancouver for away matches (hopefully to end with a Sounders victory).

    One nitpick: the Sounders were the fifteenth team; Philly will be the sixteenth.

  5. Joey Clams says:

    Because I’m an American soccer fan, I’m supposed to care about Vancouver, right? I know that it’s written somewhere.

    I’d love to see the Toronto fans, by the way, start crap near the stadium in Chester. Philly fans won’t do a thing, of course, but the locals might. Word to the wise, folks.

    • Lars says:

      Where is it written that this is solely a website about american football? I didn’t see you complaining when stuff about other CONCACAF nations was posted.

      You have an unrealistic hate on, and the more you talk, the more i think you’re a lame Columbus supporter.

  6. Question for you? What impact do you see of Vancouver’s residency/academy program on the MLS? What is the advantage, financially of the program as well as the impact in play?

    I see that as Vancouver and clubs like Chicago, New York and DC get more and more adept at developing players through the academy, MLS change its rules allowing salary cap exemptions for academy developed players, similar to the Generation Addidas exemptions for college underclassman.

  7. man99utd says:

    As these academy developed players increase the MLS will have to change more than the salary cap. It will have to effectively scrap the college draft system. Why wait to obtain talent at 20-22 when I can have it much sooner. This will put the MLS on par with the rest of the world and begin to erase the world’s current advantage. Kids who have no chance of attending university shouldn’t be locked out of football in America.

  8. Tom says:

    Informative article, thank you. I’m excited for the league and the sport, although I get the feeling MLS silverwear for the Rapids is becoming a more and more distant dream with each season.

  9. Vancouver is clear with its residential academy players that participation will exclude a college playing career and lucrative scholarships, even if they leave the academy. In the near future it’s unlikely that MLS clubs will be willing to put top players in the same bind when potential player dividends are so disparate. Also, Vancouver has no restrictions on the radius from which they draw academy players now, but will face them in MLS in 2011. In that matter something will have to change by 2011, either for Vancouver or in MLS restrictions. Chicago will be the likely second with a residential academy, in planning now.

    Also, there are reasons the NCAA could find justification to loosen certain restrictions or look the other way in this matter.

  10. todd says:

    uhhhh… yea, last time I checked the rules MLS has on development and u18/u16 squads and team rosters and etc. right now would completely squash what the White Caps do. Right now MLS squads are only allowed 2 ‘home-grown’ players before the rest of the league is allowed to go grab them up…. this will have to change if we want other teams to have these sorts of things…

  11. djmk says:

    The Whitecaps are awesome. when they enter the MLS, the Pacific Northwest rivalry and the inter-canadian rivalry is going to be first class. The pain of them losing to Montreal last weekend still hurts.

    The only problem i foresee is the stadium. As mentioned, they are set to play in BC Place come their inaugural season. This stadium blows for soccer. Sure, they are doing upgrades and hopefully a new roof, but it won’t disguise that it is a huge lifeless concrete structure. This stadium was no good in 1983 and I’m afraid that it won’t be any good in 2011.

  12. Jason says:

    Yes you should care about Vancouver Joey Clams. They will put $5m into the pockets of the AMERICAN based MLS teams in 2011.

  13. Pro says:

    Unfortunately, this season, Whitecaps are charging a fee for their identified Prospects at U11 to U13. Hardly the actions of a true professional club

  14. Charles says:

    I didn’t realize that BC Place will be topped out at 20k. That is a bummer and to be frank, just plain stupid. Vancouver regularly drew in the mid 20k, 30 years ago, and had a successful USL franchise, is attenance going to be less now ? The Sounders in the exact same situation historically might show the answer to be no.

    Bizzare how the MLS is ill equipped to handle a growing sport. Like adding another team in Canada with another max-20k seating arrangement is smart looking at Toronto’s inability to raise attendance to 30k/game in next few years.

    Oh I am sorry, full disclosure, the MLS line is those stadiums are great and intimate.

    • Lars says:

      Um, BC Place is terrible viewing for any game of any kind. Brutal for football, brutal for soccer. Of course they’re going to cap it, because it seats over 40,000 people and even if it draws 25,000, it will look bad on TV.

      If you ever watch CFL Football, you’d realize this.

      The Stadium has a dual roof structure for a reason as well. If the game is a big one, they can open the one roof and keep all the seats still. If the game is a small one, they can open both, and have a 20,000 seater. I don’t know why this doesn’t make sense, considering it will allow the team to fill the seats according to the demand while not looking retarded on TV with a half empty stadium.

    • Lars says:

      Oh and word is Toronto Is adding capacity to BMO next year and the stadium will likely seat 24,000-28,000. The Beer garden is being removed in favour of more seating. Thanks.

  15. Chris says:

    umm bc place lower bowl will hold around 29,000 I heard and I can see us filling that. though can’t wait till the waterfront stadium, if it ever happens.

  16. Chet Suabo says:

    BC Place is an AWFUL facility. I was at game 1 back in ’83. It was fitting that Loverboy christened that building with their arena rock stylings. Vancouver had a great stadium (only 39 years old) called Empire Stadium but it wasn’t “world class” enough. If they had refurbished it, it would have been awesome. It held 32,000 and beautiful vistas. It had an awful turf but that could have been fixed.

    Hopefully a new one will be built in the next few years,. BC Place is only suitable for boat shows.

    • Fred says:

      Empire Stadium was the AWFUL stadium for soccer. Any stadium that has a running track pushes the seating a mile back. The great soccer stadiums, the fans are right up close to the field.

  17. CA says:

    “Even in Seattle it is not common place to hear conversation about the intricacies of zonal marking and why the offside trap isn’t working. At Qwest Field you get the impression that some fans are there to ride the Sounder wave and experience their first football rush.”

    This simply is not an accurate statement.

  18. Phil says:

    One question: How will any of the USL Whitecaps resident players become the property of MLS Whitecaps? If that is the case, this truly will become a case of promotion.

  19. man99utd says:

    It’s time for MLS to grow up and be a proper league. Let’s cut the NCAA umbilical cord and have done with it. The Whitecaps are doing something innovative (for North America). By the time kids reach college age in America they’re light years behind kids from the rest of the world that are snapped up by academies. I’ve never liked the draft system that rewards failure in the name of parity. Additionally, it generally locks out kids who can’t afford to attend university nor talented enough to receive one of the limited amount of scholarships available.

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