VANCOUVER, B.C. – Steve Nash was chief cheerleader, jumping, screaming and banging a drum as a shower of rolled-up plastic ponchos rained down from the stands around him. The Vancouver Whitecaps' Major League Soccer adventure was underway.
Did I say adventure? This was more like a big ol' party as one of North America's most fun cities opened its arms to MLS and yelled their new heroes to a 4-2 opening day victory over Canadian rival Toronto FC.
Instead of the harsh demonstration of just how difficult it is for new teams to find success in the early period after entering a league, the Whitecaps started this new chapter of their existence like a dream.
Yet more than the result, it was the atmosphere at a rocking Empire Field that indicated MLS has continued its recent trend of backing a winner. From Toronto itself to Seattle and now further north, new markets have brought big crowds filled with color and passion and a feeling for the game. Vancouver can happily join that company.
Saturday was like carnival day in this chilled and cosmopolitan part of Canada. Everywhere you looked there were scarves, jerseys and beaming smiles of optimism. Nash, the NBA star from nearby Victoria, wore all three and, despite being a part-owner of the franchise, was very much a fan.
"We wanted to create an authentic soccer atmosphere here and there is no question that has happened," Nash said. "When I am watching I am not thinking about being an owner, I'm just sitting there nervously wanting the guys to get the ball in the net."
The buzz and vibe was in full flow well before kickoff and when Eric Hassli, a hulking Swiss striker who looked terrible in preseason, scored the first of his two goals and the Whitecaps' first in MLS after 15 minutes, it started to rain white plastic. In the absence of inclement weather, the fans could not resist a celebratory hurl of the provided ponchos and the game had to be halted for a few minutes while the field was cleared of them.
"It was a special atmosphere," said Jay DeMerit, Whitecaps captain and member of the United States national team. "Even the ponchos were great, it showed the crowd responded to us and had fun and did their own cool thing."
Although Dwayne De Rosario quickly equalized for Toronto, it didn't take long for it to become Vancouver's day. Terry Dunfield, a hometown boy who spent nearly a decade playing professionally in England, scored the Whitecaps' second and celebrated by launching himself full length into the crowd.
"I would have swum home from England to play for Vancouver if I'd had to," Dunfield said. "It means so much to me to play for this team and to be part of this. I couldn't resist sharing with the crowd, and a lot of my friends and family were here."
The Whitecaps are a likeable group with no superstars, a powerful and imposing leader in DeMerit and a bunch of players who seem genuinely committed to the cause. Life may be tough as the season progresses, but this was a day to treasure.
Atiba Harris and Hassli's second extended the gap in the second half, while Maicon dos Santos' ferocious late strike never really threatened to get Toronto back into it.
The heavy defeat the Colorado Rapids inflicted upon the Portland Timbers – 2011's other expansion team – showed that the initial steps into MLS can be fraught with danger. Vancouver's achievement then, after only one game, should not be underestimated even though Toronto was woefully disjointed.
And while serious progress away from the foot of the 18-team table may prove tough to sustain, the Whitecaps have some solid pieces in place. Once Empire Field is ditched in favor of a gleaming new downtown stadium, the feel-good factor around this team will only intensify.
Vancouver is always going to be a hockey town but soccer lives and breathes healthily here. And, after Saturday, it screams and cheers and hurls the occasional poncho too.