Vancouver Whitecaps – The Champion Nobody Expected

posted in: Stories | 0

British Columbia was eagerly looking forward to the year 2011 and joining the MLS. The former NASL Vancouver Whitecaps are the only team in the city’s history that ever took a championship at the highest level and after the disappearance of the Grizzlies NBA franchise to Memphis, Canada’s third city had only one Major League team left: the Canucks of the NFL. Since then, the fans have also renewed their rivalry with the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers in the Cascadia Cup. But first let’s see how it all started.

On December 11, 1973, a new club is born in Vancouver. The new club is called the Vancouver Whitecaps, a reference to both the snowy peaks of the North Shore Mountains and the foam heads on the incoming waves from the Pacific Ocean. The caps immediately start in the NASL and after the lone season of the Vancouver Royals in 1968 Vancouver again has a football team at the highest level. The Whitecaps don’t exactly make a scorching start: in their first two seasons they fail to make the play-offs and while they do manage this in their third season they are beaten in the first round by their Seattle rivals. The following year, in 1977, the club starts a remarkable advance, but they lose the division championship to, again, the Seattle Sounders. In 1978, the Caps win their division and push through to the semi-finals of the National Conference where they meet that other rival. Unfortunately, the Portland Timbers are too strong, but in Vancouver they are now in a winning mood.

It would all lead to the much-discussed year of 1979. The Whitecaps had brought together a homogeneous team in which local players like Bob Lenarduzzi and Buzz “White Shoes” Parsons played together with strong but admittedly older foreign footballers like the former English internationals Alan Ball and Kevin Hector and the Scottish winger Willie Johnston as well as the young goalkeeper/clown Bruce Grobbelaar who was discovered at a scouting camp in South Africa. This team wins its division again and then successfully starts the conference play-offs by first eliminating Dallas Tornado and in the semifinals getting rid of Johan Cruyff’s Los Angeles Aztecs. The conference finals bring the two division winners of the national conference together: on the one hand the carefully assembled “British” team from Canada, on the other hand the defending champion and the international star-studded  team of the New York Cosmos. Nobody doubted the outcome of this meeting: the Cosmos had been the champions for the past two seasons and have a team full of stars: the Brazilian Carlos Alberto, the German Franz Beckenbauer, the Dutchmen Neeskens and Rijsbergen, the Italian Chinaglia and the Yugoslav Bogićević. The New Yorkers are arrogant and cocky and it was clear to them that the Cosmos would soon be finished with this riffraff from Vancouver.

The match in Vancouver is supposed to be a walkover, but it soon turns out that the Canadians have no intention of just letting themselves be pushed aside. The frustrated New Yorkers lose 2-0 and finish the with 9 after red cards for Carlos Alberto and Eskandarian. The return game in the Giants stadium is won 3-2 by the Cosmos, so another minigame was played and when that failed to decide on a winner, there was a shoot-out (not penalties but about the same as in hockey, the player dribbles down from the center field and tries to score in a one-on-one situation.) which was won by Vancouver. What nobody thought was possible happened: not only did the Whitecaps take out the Cosmos, they did so in a full Giants stadium. The fairy tale didn’t end there: Soccerbowl 79 was assigned to … Giants Stadium and in front of almost 65.000 spectators Vancouver beats the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-1. The victory creates gigantic scenes of joy on the West Coast.

The following year was a sobering one, the Caps barely manage to reach the playoffs and are quickly eliminated by the Sounders in the first round. In the following seasons, the club would win the division title twice more, but they will not make it beyond a semifinal in the conference. Nevertheless, the Whitecaps remain popular and for the 1983 season the 32.000 seat Empire Stadium was exchanged for the colossal BC Place Stadium, a brand new stadium with 60.000 seats that is shared with the American Football team BC Lions and stands out because of its inflatable roof. The first game the Caps play is a sold-out derby against the Sounders and the new stadium combined with a great season causes the average number of spectators to rise to almost 30,000.

Unfortunately, it again goes wrong in the playoffs and Toronto is too strong in the first round. 1984 would be the last season of NASL and the Whitecaps feel the decline as well, despite a strong season (with another semifinal in the playoffs) the number of spectators drops by almost half and when the NASL folds it also immediately spelled the end for the one-time champion.

For two years there would be no significant level of football played in Vancouver. In 1986, this changed after the Canadian participation in the World Cup: the new football team is called Vancouver 86rs (a reference to both the founding date and the founding date of Vancouver in 1886) but has a strong bond with the former Whitecaps: among others, the legendary ex-Whitecap Bob Lenarduzzi becomes coach. The ’86s participate in the newly founded CSL (Canadian Soccer League) in 1987 and they don’t have to wait long for success: in 1988 they win their first CSL championship and the next three years they would do the same. Between 1988 and 1989 they remain unbeaten for no less than 46 games in a row: a unique event in the history of North American professional sports. In 1990 they reach their peak, winning the North American Club Championship by beating the Maryland Bays. Unfortunately the CSL doesn’t do well financially, in 1992 and after the Sixers win the regular season for the fifth consecutive time, the league ceases to exist. The ’86s move to the APSL which in turn is included in the USL where the ’86s compete in the subtop.

In 2000, the club comes into the hands of David Stadnyk and with the support of the fans, the name “Whitecaps” is adopted again and the colors of the ’86rs (red, white and black) are changed back to the white-blue of the former champions. The team seemed to be on its way back to golden times but in 2002 is rocked by Stadnyk quitting and handing the ownership back to the APSL. Fortunately, the uncertainty doesn’t last long: Greg Kerfoot, who earned his credentials in the software world and is crazy about football, buys both the Whitecaps and the Breakers women’s team and merges them with the youth teams to form the Whitecaps Football Club. He also sets the tone for the years to come: a brand new youth and training centre is built and the entire organisation is gradually professionalized. Successes are now being achieved: the USL first division Championship is won in 2006 and 2008 and the women’s and youth teams also win national championships. Meanwhile, the MLS announced two expansion slots for the 2011 season, Kerfoot expands the organization with Paul Barber, the former Executive Director at Tottenham, and three new co-owners: Stephen Luczo (Seagate CEO), Jeff Mallett (former Yahoo CEO and among others co-owner of Derby County and the San Francisco Giants) and Steve Nash (Canadian NBA player and football addict). The application of the Whitecaps has now become so strong that, apart from the commitment to one of the expansion slots, they also receive a lot of praise from the underwriting committee. The other expansion spot goes to the Portland Timbers so they will both be able to restart their rivalry with the Seattle Sounders who joined the MLS two years prior.

The return of 3 legendary NASL franchises and the success of brand new franchises such as the Philadelphia Union and Atlanta United FC have been a huge boost for the MLS and in Vancouver they secretly dream of their next big championship party. “White is the color” has been gathering dust for far too long.


Soccerhead: An accidental journey into the heart of the American Game. HANER Jim, North Point Press