League champions hope to join North America's top circuit
By Ian Walker, Vancouver Sun
With the statue of the city's founding father as a backdrop, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC gathered as a team for one final time on Tuesday as Vancouver city council saluted the United Soccer Leagues First Division champions.
Players, coaches, management and staff were joined outside city hall by Mayor Sam Sullivan and other dignitaries for a ceremonial raising of the Whitecaps' flag before moving indoors where the team was officially recognized for its second championship in three years and first on home soil since 1992. Vancouver defeated the Puerto Rico Islanders
2-1 on Sunday in the USL-1 championship game at Swangard Stadium.
The atmosphere was more joyous than boisterous, with few supporters of the team in attendance at the hastily called mid-afternoon celebration ceremony. Still, team president Bob Lenarduzzi told council that he fully envisions the sport's return to the spectacle it was upon the team's victorious return from Soccer Bowl Five, when 100,000 fans flooded the downtown core to celebrate the team's historic championship.
His hopes were buoyed by Vancouver's bid for a Major League Soccer franchise. Today is the deadline for submissions into North America's premier soccer league.
"I actually think it's a bit of fate that the championship came just days before our expansion bid," said Lenarduzzi, a member of the Whitecaps 1979 championship team. "The bid book arrived in New York last week and there's really not much else for us to do other than wait for the MLS to review the bids they have received and answer any questions they may have."
The Whitecaps are one of eight or nine cities, including Montreal, Ottawa, St. Louis, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., New York and Miami, in the running for the 17th and 18th MLS franchises, to begin play in 2011. The league is expected to announce the successful candidate cities later this year or early 2009. It's estimated a franchise could cost between $30 and $40 million US, triple the $10 million paid by Toronto FC in 2006.
A confidentiality agreement prevents Lenarduzzi from revealing exact details, but he said the Whitecaps' presentation outlines the team's storied soccer history, ownership's commitment to growing the game in B.C., the impressive soccer infrastructure the team has in place along with highlighting the support of National Basketball Association star Steve Nash, who joined the ownership group earlier this summer.
"We talk about the fact we hosted 50,000 people for the exhibition game against the Los Angeles Galaxy and almost 40,000 in Edmonton, so we've proven in the past we can step it up if we have to," he said. "Without sounding overconfident, I'm not so sure if there's anyone, other than Montreal, that has a story similar to ours in terms of ownership, history and club structure. Certainly on the club structure side, it's an area I think that distinguishes us from any other bid."
In one of his final acts as mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan met with MLS commissioner Don Garber last week in New York to throw the city's weight behind the Whitecaps bid. Sullivan expressed how the city and provincial governments are committed to the idea of having a team.
"It was very well received," said Sullivan, who along with council members was sporting a Whitecaps scarf around during the flag-raising ceremony and afternoon's chamber meeting. "All our fingers are crossed."
The one question mark hovering over Vancouver's MLS proposal is the stadium issue. The Whitecaps are pursuing plans to build a 20,000-seat stadium, financed by owner Greg Kerfoot, on the Vancouver waterfront. The team is involved in negotiations with the Port Authority, but to cover their bases have secured a lease agreement to play out of a renovated BC Place, starting in 2011.
MLS has made no secret that it has a preference for soccer-specific stadiums, like Montreal's 12,500-seat Saputo Stadium.
"Included in the bid were renderings of BC Place as to what it would look like as a soccer-specific venue," said Lenarduzzi. "All I can tell you on that is that it's astounding. It doesn't even look like the same place. It tries to incorporate the draping so there's the intimacy you get from a smaller crowd at BC Place, also it has seats reconfigured so that they are right up next to the sidelines and behind the goals. So we're quite confident that once they see that it shouldn't be an issue moving forward."
The Whitecaps and Port Authority have agreed to keep negotiations private, rather than hash out their differences in public.
"We're talking to the Port, but we've decided to keep discussions internal until we have something to disclose one way or another," said Lenarduzzi, adding the sticking points are the amount of land needed and the value of the land. "We're talking, it's amicable and hopefully it will reach a positive resolution."
Whitecaps captain Jeff Clarke playfully alluded to the Waterfront stadium during his council address. He said following the championship game the team had a meal in Burnaby, before jumping in taxis and heading downtown to celebrate.
"The only improvement from Sunday would be coming out of the stadium and turning right on Cordova," said the New Westminster native. "Let's get soccer where it belongs, in the city."
Lenarduzzi said mayoral candidates Peter Ladner and Gregor Robertson have both gone on the record to support the new stadium and Vancouver's MLS bid.
"I'd just love to see an MLS team in Vancouver," said Robertson. "Unfortunately, city hall has been slow and made it difficult for the Whitecaps to find a home. I'd definitely crank up the pressure to get things moving faster."
Ladner did not return a call from The Sun on Tuesday
Launched in 1996, MLS has grown from a modest eight-team league that garnered little attention from the sports media to a 14-team operation in 2008 which features one of the most famous athletes on the planet, David Beckham. Toronto FC, the first Canadian club in MLS, joined the league in 2007. Seattle and Philadelphia will be added for next season.
The league will formally announce the cities in the running shortly after the bid's 5 p.m Eastern deadline. MLS officials did not comment whether there was another bid expected from Vancouver. Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini has also been reported to be interested in bringing a team to Vancouver. Calls to Aquilini's office were not returned on Tuesday.
"We can only concern ourselves with our bid," said Lenarduzzi.
The Whitecaps flag will fly at city hall for about a week. Just in front of it, the statue of Capt. George Vancouver offers a symbolic tribute to the city's MLS hopes. His right hand raised and pointing north, as if looking to the future. Ironically, it's in the direction of where the Whitecaps proposed Waterfront Stadium would stand.