VANCOUVER - Something old and something new came together Saturday for the Vancouver Whitecaps’ MLS debut, with spectacular results. In a 4-2 win over Toronto FC, these Whitecaps evoked both the distant and short-term past, with a look, a name and a venue that drew from their time in the old North American Soccer League, but several players and an intense following of fans from their more recent seasons at the second-division level. The two combined to form a thoroughly new experience, and one centred around the fans.
Many of the hardcore fans who had typically been on hand at Vancouver’s old Swangard Stadium were present to see these Whitecaps make their debut on the larger stage, but they brought along plenty of friends. The new Empire Field, built near the site of Vancouver’s first NASL home at Empire Stadium, was filled to the brim with 23,000 people, mostly Whitecaps’ supporters. The vast majority of the fans in attendance were decked out in white and blue and making plenty of noise in support of Vancouver throughout, which Whitecaps’ head coach Teitur Thordarson said was key to the team’s on-pitch success.
“It was absolutely exhilarating,” Thordarson said. “I couldn’t have imagined it being like this.”
Thordarson said his team felt like they weren’t the only ones facing Toronto, thanks to the encouragement from their fans.
“The supporters looked like a team,” he said.
The opening ceremonies, featuring Whitecaps’ co-owner, NBA star and local legend Steve Nash, MLS commissioner Don Garber and B.C, premier Christy Clark among others, received a decent response, but this crowd came for the soccer, and they weren’t disappointed. The intensity began to build with the player introductions and it reached fever pitch when Eric Hassli cracked home the opening goal in the 15th minute. The Swiss international, Vancouver’s recently-signed first designated player, proved his worth immediately to the fans, receiving a steady stream of love, adulation and thrown complimentary ponchos (in a move recalling the way Toronto fans greeted the first goal in their franchise’s history with a shower of seat covers), and the cheers went on long after play resumed.
One notable aspect of the atmosphere was how much of it was generated by the fans themselves. There were no noise meters or canned music tracks and little encouragement from the P.A. announcer, but that provided an opportunity for the fans to make their voices heard. Many of them did so with original chants and songs, some of which the Southsiders (the official supporters’ club) had used in Division II play, but some which were new for the occasion. Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber, who came to the team from Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League, said the Whitecaps hoped to see their fans create something without club intervention, and they were thrilled with the results.
“We did our bit at the start and then the fans took over,” Barber said. “We said from the start we wanted the atmosphere to be organic to Vancouver, and it was.”
The fans were momentarily quieted when Dwayne De Rosario struck back for Toronto FC to knot the score, but they were anything but taken out of the match. The crowd didn’t stop their encouragement with the score drawn, and they soon had even more to cheer about when Terry Dunfield struck home a second goal and put them in the lead.
In its own way, Dunfield’s goal was perfectly symbolic of this team and its mix of old and new. A Vancouver native, Dunfield joined the Whitecaps midway through their final Division II season last year after several years in England, and he made an instant impact on their midfield. Now in MLS, he’s wearing former captain Martin Nash’s number seven, and he came up with a crucial goal in the way Nash always tended to.
Obviously, most soccer crowds will be appreciative when their team comes away with a 4-2 win, but the enthusiasm in Vancouver appears to have staying power. The fans have already impressed the league office, at least; Garber even donned a Whitecaps’ scarf for the opening ceremonies, and he said at halftime that the game surpassed even his lofty expectations.
“We knew it would be big, we knew it would be exciting,” Garber said. “They overdelivered.”
Garber said Vancouver and TFC demonstrated their proud rivalry, which is great for MLS as a whole.
“Rivalries don’t always have to be up and down the street,” he said. “Now we have two teams across the country.
Garber’s expectations were blown away by what the fans on hand delivered, but he said in retrospect, maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised by that.
“Canadians love this sport.”