Soccer

Vancouver awarded MLS franchise for 2011 season

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The Canadian Press
3/18/2009 9:16:25 PM
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VANCOUVER - For a few moments Bob Lenarduzzi was reliving the past, wrapped up in the fond memories of the Vancouver Whitecaps' glory days in the old North American Soccer League.

That was then, this is now.

Vancouver was awarded Major League Soccer's second Canadian franchise Wednesday and Lenarduzzi predicted the team will bring even greater soccer glory to the city.

"I thought I had seen the best soccer here in the late 70s and early 1980s," said  Lenarduzzi, the Vancouver Whitecaps' president who played on the team that won the NASL championship in 1979. "I honestly didn't think that there would be an opportunity to recapture what we had back then.

"But it is my firm belief now, that when I see what is taking place with MLS, the best is definitely yet to come."

MLS's 17th team will begin play in 2011. Commissioner Don Garber said the league is thrilled to build on the solid foundation laid by the Whitecaps.

"We believe the future success of Major League Soccer will be driven by visionary owners and cities that really care about the game," said Garber. "We are absolutely convinced this will be a terrific Major League Soccer city."

Lenarduzzi couldn't guarantee the team will keep the Whitecaps name when it joins MLS.

"There is a lot of things we need to make decisions on," he said. "The Whitecaps name has a lot of equity. There may be people out there that think it may need to be something other than that."

Vancouver was one of four remaining groups hoping to be awarded one of two MLS franchises for the 2011 season. Ottawa, Portland and St. Louis also applied. MLS is expected to award the second franchise at a later date.

Eugene Melnyk, the man behind Ottawa's bid, said Vancouver's franchise will benefit Canadian soccer.

"Having a second Canadian team join the ranks of the MLS is a real testament to the continued growth and popularity of soccer in our country," said Melnyk, who also owns the NHL's Ottawa Senators.

Another recent MLS expansion team, Seattle Sounders FC, will play its inaugural game Thursday night in the MLS season-opener against the New York Red Bulls.

Current Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot, a reclusive Vancouver millionaire,  heads a power-packed group that paid US$35 million for the franchise. Joining Kerfoot on the ownership team is NBA star Steve Nash, San Francisco Giants co-owner Jeff Mallett and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Luczo.

For Mallett, a Vancouver native and former Yahoo! Inc. president, seeing his dream come true was a special moment.

"I've been close to Major League Soccer for a dozen years and always been a big believer," he said. "I always in my heart of hearts wanted to be able to bring a franchise back to my hometown."

Toronto FC, the league's other Canadian team, paid a US$10-million fee when it joined the league in 2007.

Lenarduzzi isn't worried the new franchise is planting roots at a time when the economic recession is eroding many people's disposable incomes.

He pointed out Toronto has over 16,000 season ticket holders and Seattle has capped their season tickets at 22,000.

"There is no doubt in my mind we are a better soccer market than those two," said Lenarduzzi, who wore a team scarf around his neck. "I am excited about the prospect.

"We still have a lot of work to do. None of us are under the illusion the work stops now."

People wanting season tickets for Vancouver's MLS team can begin placing $50 deposits Saturday. Lenarduzzi said the team will cap season ticket sales at 16,500.

The Whitecaps, the defending champions of the United Soccer Leagues first division, currently play before small but devoted crowds in 5,288-seat Swangard Stadium.

The new franchise will move into BC Place. The stadium will undergo approximately $365 million in improvements, including a retractable roof, before the club takes to the field after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The venue will have a 20,000-seat soccer-specific configuration.

MLS began play in 1996 as an eight-team league. Seattle will be the 15th franchise with Philadelphia on board for 2010.

Skeptics suggest the league is growing too quickly. There are concerns David Beckham's wish to leave the L.A. Galaxy to play with AC Milan will rob MLS of its major star.

Lenarduzzi has no fears MLS will follow the NASL's path into bankruptcy.

"We caught lighting in a bottle in the late 70s and early 1980s," he said. "But unfortunately we didn't have a foundation, we didn't have a base to build from.

"There is no doubt in my mind we will be able to capture all that energy and all that excitement."

The Whitecaps will continue to play in the USL during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

Tim Holt, the USL's chief operating officer, wished the Whitecaps well.

"We are grateful for the role played by the Vancouver Whitecaps in the development of USL-1 the past several years and look forward to building upon this in the coming seasons," Holt said in a statement.

Also attending the announcement was B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Campbell, who faces a May election, praised MLS for coming to B.C.

"You are not going to find a place where the fans are more committed to their team than right here in Vancouver,"  he said.

Vancouver Whitecaps Celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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