Features & Columns

Soccer Signs

A trip to Vancouver conjures up memories of the Earthquakes
and the North American Soccer League
MAKING A SPLASH: The Whitecaps were anything but modest about their football history.

LAST WEEK, in the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, a transdimensional mosaic of space-time continuum-shattering connections to the city of San Jose came to light. I was lucky to be there.

On a rainy and miserable evening, Vancouver Whitecaps FC hosted the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer. As I see it, just the relationship between those two clubs—currently and formerly—constitutes enough of an interstellar multiplicity to make one's head explode. So get ready.

This year, the Whitecaps came into the league as an expansion club—previously they competed in a lower-profile league—but, just like San Jose, they are using a moniker that goes back to the days of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) in the '70s.

Vancouver's NASL heritage is a major component of the club's entire brand today. It's part of everything the club does. The first thing one sees on the website is "Since 1974." The website makes it clear that the club's first match was against the San Jose Earthquakes in May of that year. Bob Lenarduzzi was on that 1974 team, and he is president of the current club. Throughout the temporary stadium, Empire Field, I saw posters, placards and gleaming white banners with the Whitecaps logo, underlined with: "Since 1974."

Before the game, in the media-command center, a few seasoned reporters carried on and told stories about those days. Current Whitecaps club ambassador, Carl Valentine, was also a star for some of those old Vancouver teams, and he was likewise carrying on about the NASL days, especially George Best.

Across the board, people seemed hip to the history, primarily because Vancouver brought home the NASL championship in 1979—the only title the city has ever won—so everyone who's old enough carries on about how 150,000 people showed up in downtown Vancouver to watch the victory parade. A video exists on YouTube if you desire to relive the moment. Both Lenarduzzi and Valentine played on that team. Everyone seemed to have much bigger hairstyles back then.

In those days, the club played in the former Empire Stadium, which was eventually torn down long after the NASL folded. Today, the Whitecaps' eventual permanent home, BC Place, is undergoing renovations, so the team is beginning its 2011 inaugural Major League Soccer season at a specially erected temporary stadium, Empire Field, at the exact same location of the former Empire Stadium that was torn down.

In fact, the first time I ever visited Vancouver—as a child on a family vacation in 1980—we attended a Whitecaps match at Empire Stadium. So, one can imagine how bizarre it was last week for me to attend my first Whitecaps match since 1980, at the same location but in a different stadium. The cycles of creation and destruction manifest themselves wherever I roam. To get there, we drove east from the postcard-picture skyline of downtown Vancouver, past the Scientology church, through the crackhead wasteland and straight up to the stadium. Yeah!

In the meantime, BC Place, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies in downtown Vancouver, is undergoing the construction of a brand-new cable-supported retractable roof—the largest of its kind on earth. The Whitecaps will move in when the new stadium opens later this year.

The connections don't stop there. Current Quakes head coach, Frank Yallop, grew up in Vancouver. His former childhood friend, roommate and teammate on the Canadian National Team, Colin Miller, is Vancouver's current assistant coach. One of Yallop's assistant coaches, Mark Watson, is also from Vancouver and likewise played alongside Yallop for the Canadian national side. Got all that? Of course you do.

And that's just soccer. The Sharks were on the radars of seemingly all Vancouverites last week, as locals watched San Jose eliminate Detroit, so it could play Vancouver in the NHL Western Conference Championship series. Sadly, my trip had to end on Sunday. The opening puck of game one dropped right as I flew back to the Bay Area.