The tide rolls back in for top level soccer in Vancouver. From left to right, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, BC Premier Gordon Campbell, part-owner Jeff Mallet, Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi and Mayor Gregor Robertson at today’s press conference.
Today’s announcement formally admitting the Vancouver Whitecaps into MLS as its 17th team on the eve of the 2009 season opener in Seattle between the expansion Sounders and New York Red Bulls was a reminder of the legacy of the now-defunct North American Soccer League.
And it stirred memories of a false dawn for the sport, when soccer appeared momentarily on the cusp of a breakthrough on the sporting landscape, but instead marked a brief pinnacle before the inexorable downward trend began.
My first live NASL game was the encounter between the Sounders and the defending champion Whitecaps on Aug. 2, 1980 at the now-demolished, cavernous Kingdome on one of my first visits to the Pacific Northwest.
It was three years after my arrival in North America from England and I had largely existed on a paltry televised soccer diet of Soccer Made in Germany and the (very, it seemed) occasional NASL game. I bought a green and white Sounders baseball cap on game day that sadly has long since gone missing.
Despite complaints about media coverage now, soccer then truly existed on the periphery of American sport.
I subsisted on week-old Sunday newspapers imported from England for news. And I vividly remember watching the 1977 NASL Soccer Bowl a few days after my arrival from England, aghast that ABC cut away for a commercial and missed a goal in the live title game between the Sounders and Cosmos.
The more than 33,000 in attendance at the 1980 game – Seattle’s second highest announced crowd of the regular season – did their best to fill the half-full indoor Kingdome with chants and waving flags. I recall singing Whitecaps fans marching through the streets of Pioneer Square en masse – as Sounders fans will do this season albeit behind a marching band – in a show of passion I hadn’t seen since England.
But there was something agreeably missing.
English soccer in the late ’70s was a dour reflection of the gloomy and militant economic times. Hooliganism was rampant even in the relatively small town of Norwich where I grew up and just going to games could be an intimidating experience in a hostile environment.
Back then you’d give large groups of opposing supporters a wide berth and hide your team scarf as you did so lest it end up ripped from your neck and chucked into the River Wensum. And that was on a good day.
That threatening atmosphere was completely absent in Seattle. The Whitecaps fans indulged gleefully in their day out without a trace of threatening behavior, reveling in their ability to drive less than couple of hundred miles down the coast for a derby game.
In truth, I remember more about the atmosphere than the game itself (the Sounders won on a goal from Derby County striker Roger Davies, although I had to look it up).
Also on view that day according to the treasured program (it was $2) I still have was the likes of Whitecaps defender Bob Lenarduzzi, one of the best Canadian players of the era, who heads up the staff of the version that begins play in 2011.
The Whitecaps unveiling presentation today leaned heavily on that history with video clips of the NASL days and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell deadpanning that fans in Vancouver are so committed to soccer “they remember when Bob Lenarduzzi was a star.”
The year 1980 saw 24 teams play in the NASL for the third year in a row, a transitory period of stability that soon vanished.
The next year four teams folded and the race to the league’s demise began full throttle.
The Sounders quit in 1983, while the Whitecaps hung onto the bitter end of the NASL a year later.
Fans remembered both teams fondly and neither fully died, resurrected at least in name first in the USL and now in MLS.
I lived in both Vancouver and Seattle for a while in the 1980s and also recall attending an indoor NASL game between the two teams in the fall of 1981 (Seattle, who I was cheering for, lost the game, much to the delight of the Whitecaps fans sitting around me). The two cities have always been soccer hotbeds, in part because of the soggy climate that nevertheless allows year-round play as well as the large British expat population north of the U.S. border.
The fan following Seattle and Vancouver enjoyed during their NASL days was in many ways a precursor to the still nascent fanatical support we see from the likes of the L.A. Riot Squad and Chivas USA fans. These hard-core fans travel even to friendlies on a scale not generally seen in other American sports.
Following in the footsteps of Toronto, which capped season ticket sales at 16,000 in their 20,000-seat stadium that is an unrivaled cauldron of noise and color in MLS, Seattle has sold more than 20,000 season tickets and have expanded the size of Qwest Field for soccer to about 26,000 seats.
Vancouver will undoubtedly see similar success when ticket sales begin Saturday. And in each case a soccer-friendly population, seeded in part by the NASL has played a major role (I still wish Toronto had retained the Blizzard name – also the name of my Canadian youth team in the late 1970s- from the NASL days) in bringing that success to MLS.
Given the largely unfulfilled promise of the NASL, it is apt that a part of soccer history has resurfaced in MLS via the likes of Seattle and Vancouver.
A traditional rivalry known largely to hard-core fans now has the potential to become the best in MLS, with unique geographic and international overtones that give the sport its distinctive nationalistic flavor.
To give you a preview of the atmosphere we can expect at games, check out the 60,000 who attended this previous Whitecaps-Sounders game when B.C. Place – the slimmed-down and refurbished home of the MLS Whitecaps – opened in 1983.