Over 120,000 children in Vancouver are involved in soccer.
AP Photos

Vancouver awarded 17th MLS franchise

One day before Seattle Sounders FC play its first Major League Soccer game, the league has announced Vancouver will be the 17th MLS club and one of two expansion teams for the 2011 season.

"I've said many times that we believe the future success of Major League Soccer will be driven by visionary ownership, by cities that really care about the game, that are very diverse, very international and very connected to the sport," Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said. "We have all that of that right here in the city of Vancouver."

Philadelphia will begin play in 2010, while Portland, Ottawa and St. Louis are the other cities in the running for a 2011 expansion team.

"It will be a tough decision for us to finalize that last candidate for this round and one that we will likely be making very shortly," Garber said.

The Whitecaps are the second Canadian-based MLS team, following Toronto FC, which joined the league in 2006 and follow Seattle as the second club to make the jump from the United Soccer Leagues First Division to MLS.

"We really look forward to rekindling our rivalry with our neighbors in Seattle. I can't wait to give Mayor (Greg) Nickles a call and throw down the gauntlet this afternoon," Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said. "I also look forward to a really robust rivalry with our friends in Toronto, who somehow tipped us at the post getting into the MLS. ... We will demonstrate, as we have in the past, that we are a soccer city, from the youngest of ages to those of us who are starting to gray and beyond."

While there are long-term plans for a waterfront soccer-specific stadium, the Whitecaps will play in the renovated BC Place Stadium, which will serve as the site for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It was also home to the Whitecaps of the North American Soccer League in the early 1980s.

"We're a major league city," British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell said. "We've got fans who are directly and intimately involved in the game. There's no sport in British Columbia that has more participation than soccer, over 120,000 kids across this province."

As part of an estimated $365 million facelift, the stadium, built in 1983, will have the first centrally hung electronic scoreboard and retractable roof in MLS, which uses the same technology found at Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany, the home of Eintracht Frankfurt of the German Bundesliga.

"The building was state-of-the-art then and it's going to be state-of-the-art now," Vancouver Whitecaps FC president Bob Lenarduzzi said. "Anyone who attends a Whitecaps game is going to be in a fantastic atmosphere and for the most part it will be a soccer-specific venue."

Garber said the process of selecting Vancouver took about a year after the ownership group of Greg Kerfoot, Steve Luczo, Jeff Mallett and Steve Nash initially submitted a bid.

Mallett had fun comparing his Fab Four ownership group with a Liverpool-based foursome in the 1960s and 70s.

He said Kerfoot, the owner of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, is "our John Lennon, the quiet genius in the group." Luczo, the president, CEO, and chairman of the board for Seagate Technology and part owner of the National Basketball Association's Boston Celtics, is "our George Harrison. You don't necessarily see he's there, but if he's not there, it's not a band."

Nash, the Phoenix Suns point guard and two-time NBA MVP is "the Paul McCartney, the cool one in the group and that leaves Ringo for me," said the part owner of Major League Baseball's San Francisco Giants and former president and chief operating officer of Yahoo!

Soccer has a rich tradition in Vancouver, which included a North American Soccer League team that won Soccer Bowl in 1979 and drew 60,342 to BC Place for a 2-1 win against Seattle, with Lenarduzzi scoring a goal, on June 20, 1983.

"I thought I had seen the best of soccer in the late '70s, early '80s," Lenarduzzi said. "I honestly didn't think there would be an opportunity recapture what we had back then. But, it's my firm belief now when I see what is taking place with MLS, that the best is definitely yet to come."

Dylan Butler is a contributor to MLSnet.com.