VANCOUVER, B.C. – It might seem like nothing in Major League Soccer could match the intensity of the Sounders-Timbers derby last Saturday – but that could change next month.
There’s another MLS expansion team in the Northwest, and those who remember the Seattle-Vancouver rivalry from the North American Soccer League say they do not expect it to take a backseat to Seattle-Portland in MLS.
“I think they’re equally important,” said Alan Hinton, who has been involved in Seattle, Vancouver and Tacoma soccer since the 1970s. “I’m biased because I coached Vancouver and I played for Vancouver, and I had a great time both years: great city, great fans. The fact that both places are drivable, it makes it happen.”
The Whitecaps feel the same way, even
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on the eve of playing another natural rival: Toronto FC.
The fellow Canadian team will visit Wednesday in the opener of a two-game final for the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, the Voyagers Cup and entry into CONCACAF Champions League.
“We have such a history with the Sounders,” said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, who played for the NASL Whitecaps and the indoor Tacoma Stars. “I was fortunate enough to be a player in the original era, and I can remember back to 1974 when we played at Memorial Stadium right by the Space Needle and they were cramming 17,000-18,000 people into that spot. It was a fantastic atmosphere.
“And then over the years, hosting the Sounders in Vancouver and having a number of the Sounders fans come up, and vice versa the other way. That was always a fixture that we think both our staff and our fans looked for once the schedule was released.”
The clubs will meet for the first time in MLS competition on June 11 at Qwest Field. The Sounders will make the return trip to Vancouver on Sept. 24.
Despite a 1-5-5 start in MLS, the Whitecaps are averaging 19,970 fans per home game – third in the league behind Seattle and Los Angeles, and just ahead of Toronto and Portland.
“The atmosphere in Seattle is obviously second to none,” said MLS veteran Pete Vagenas, who played two seasons with the Sounders before joining the Whitecaps in April. “(Vancouver) has got a similar feel to Seattle, which for me was a totally different feel from L.A. They get behind their team. When the Whitecaps are playing everybody seems to know about it – which is great. It’s great for this league, great for rivalries.”
Attendance for the Whitecaps is all the more remarkable because they are competing for attention at a time when Vancouver is riveted by the NHL Canucks’ run to the Western Conference finals.
The Whitecaps also are playing in a temporary home – Empire Field – while BC Place Stadium undergoes major renovation.
The Sounders’ visit is scheduled to be the final match at Empire, while the Whitecaps plan to move into their new home, renovated BC Place, Oct. 2 against Portland.
Empire Field, which seats approximately 20,000 for soccer, is located several miles east of downtown on the same Pacific National Exhibition site as old Empire Stadium, where the NASL Whitecaps played.
The temporary nature of the place shows up in its portable restrooms, concession areas and souvenir stands, all within a fenced area abutting a small amusement park.
However, the arena bowl is comparable to some soccer-specific stadiums in MLS, featuring good sightlines, chairback seating, and the majority of sideline seats tucked under a roof.
“I don’t know how they did this,” Vagenas said from the Whitecaps’ trailer-like locker room last week after watching his first game at Empire Field. “It’s near an amusement park, which is kind of weird: I’m seeing kids in the air during training. But it’s great.”
The club’s future at BC Place should be even greater.
The downtown stadium, originally opened in 1983, is undergoing dramatic renovations. Most notable is the creation of a cable-supported roof that can pull back to allow the game to be played out in the elements while keeping fans under cover. There also will be new scoreboards, improvements in concession areas, better lighting and FIFA-approved FieldTurf. It will seat about 21,000 for soccer.
“I think it’s a testament to our fans that they’re enjoying what they’re experiencing right now,” Lenarduzzi said.
“ It’s looking very, very positive. But it’s something that we always must continue to work at and appreciate that our status has gone from being a USL team and now being a major league team; and the fact that we’re drawing 20,000 people; and not just 20,000 people, but drawing that type of atmosphere. We hope that we can continue to build on what we have, and get some results on the field.”