Thirty-one years ago this month, the Vancouver Whitecaps played a friendly in Belfield against University College Dublin (UCD) and that sounds like just the type of thing we’d run a feature on. With the 2012 Major League Soccer and Airtricity League seasons kicking off recently, Declan Hughes took in games on both sides of the Atlantic to taste the home openers for both the Students and the Whitecaps.
Football as we know it here, is ingrained in our history and has been played competitively for over 130 years although a spring start is a relatively modern phenomenon. My own opening game of this season was at the UCD Bowl where the Students hosted Cork City. UCD won 1-0 before a noisy travelling support which boosted the attendance to just shy of 700.
My first ever UCD game was a friendly with the then NASL side Vancouver Whitecaps in March 1981 on the occasion of the official opening of the Dressing Room block in Belfield Park. For the first season and a half of UCD’s membership of the League of Ireland, the teams used the facilities of Belfield House and marched over the 700 yards or so to Belfield Park to commence the games.
The Whitecaps had been founded in 1974 and had won the NASL Championship decider in 1979. In 1981 they were managed by Johnny Giles who managed to juggle managing them with his duties in charge of Shamrock Rovers. From 1980-1983 Johnny allowed some players from the Whitecaps to winter in Ireland. They trained with Shamrock Rovers who were then a full time outfit. On Saturdays they trained at Belfield with UCD and on Sundays they played for the Students.
Lining out in the Whitecaps team was one David Norman. Dave had spent the previous few months on loan with UCD. He had won a Leinster Senior Cup medal in our 2-1 win over St. Patrick’s Athletic and would go on to establish himself with the Whitecaps, make 51 international appearances for Canada and play at the 1984 Olympics and 1986 World Cup. He would also play two further half seasons in the Colours of UCD.
When the NASL folded at the end of 1984 the Whitecaps went into mothballs and in 1986 a new club emerged called the Vancouver 86ers. They played in the new semi professional outfits that had sprung up in wake of the demise of the NASL. The club was bought by its present owners who were anxious to restore the Whitecaps name. They eventually succeeded and after a number of years operating in the USL (the division below the MLS) they were elected to the MLS in 2011.
The 2012 season saw the arrival of a new team in the League, the Montreal Impact. Like the Caps, the Impact moved up from the USL. There’s a rivalry between the two teams which turned to hatred in 2009. Vancouver, FC Toronto (Canada’s longest established MLS team) and Montreal contested a parallel championship to decide the Canadian championship. The prize for winning this championship is to represent Canada in the CONCACAF Champions League. Montreal had to play Toronto on 21 June 2009 and the Whitecaps were awaiting the result as they had played all their games in the Canadian Championship (aka Voyageurs Cup).
If Toronto won by five clear goals they would deny Vancouver the championship. The Impact fielded a weakened team and crashed 6-1 thus gifting the tile to Toronto. The Whitecaps organisation and more importantly its fan base were not impressed. The cars in Canada have provincial licence plates and each province has a motto. The BC plates on Vancouver cars read ‘beautiful British Columbia’. The Quebec plates bear the french language legend ‘Je me souviens’ or ‘I remember’. When the Whitecaps hosted the Impact in the 2012 season opener, the Vancouver fans had a clever banner at the game that read ‘Je Me Souviens June 21 2009′.
These are heady times for Canadian soccer at all levels. Exposure is growing, and participation rates appear to be on the up. One thing I’ve noticed on visits to Canada over the past 8 years now is the growth in the interest in playing the game. Every school now has a soccer field which when I was living there over forty years ago was not the case at all. Soccer is watchable from every corner of the globe on sports stations several times a week nowadays. When I lived there you’d see highlights from a World Cup or possibly an Olympics, and then it would disappear again for months or possibly years at a time.
This time around I was greeted by some news of the forthcoming game practically everywhere I turned. The local newspapers had previews, as did the TV networks. One of the streets of the city leading down to the stadium had banners with the Whitecaps team logos on them.
The positive vibe means that despite Vancouver’s last place finish in the Western conference of MLS last year, the clash with Montreal at BC Place was a sell-out, filling the 21,000 capacity. The Impact’s own home opener would top that and then some. On St Patrick’s Day the Impact drew 1-1 with Chicago Fire in front of a crowd of 58,912 at the Olympic Stadium.
Despite the radical changes to the game in Vancouver over the past three decades, Norman connects the many eras of the Whitecaps. I met Dave for the first time in almost 30 years during my trip to Vancouver as he agreed to put me up the night before the opening 2012 MLS season game with the Montreal Impact. Dave covers the Whitecaps for the local radio station TEAM 1040/1410 and spends his games in the press box assisting the play by play commentator Peter Schaad.
Our first destination was an all weather facility in Burnaby. The Vancouver Whitecaps Under 16 team was playing a regional selection made up of the best players in that age group from the neighbouring provinces of Alberta , Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Vancouver Whitecaps being the biggest club in the province of British Columbia, pretty much has most of the talent in those age brackets sown up. They are housed, and educated by the club in Vancouver and the Whitecaps organisation attracts players from all over Western Canada to their academy set up. The Whitecaps selection ran out comfortable winners even though the final scoreline was only 2-1. Dave’s son, David Jr, is 14 is a talented midfield player himself and part of the Whitecaps underage system. He missed out on playing this game however due to a hamstring strain.
The next day was game-day and the atmosphere was akin to what you would get at a European game. A huge banner was passed from the back of the stand to the front bearing the legend ‘The Renaissance begins’. There was a display before kick off involving drummers, flag bearers and a group holding a huge banner which contained the Whitecaps club emblem. The cheering was led by a fan with his back to the action using a bullhorn and the chants were variations on themes sung throughtout Britain and Europe. It seems the Tifosi culture associated in particular with Serie A but also seen in the Bundesliga has been bought into wholesale.
As for the game itself well Vancouver scored after only 3 minutes, making it the quickest ever goal scored in the MLS and French midfielder Sebastien Le Toux grabbed it. The Whitecaps made the points safe on 53 minutes when Brazilian striker Camilo Da Silva Sanvezzo grabbed what proved to be the final goal of the game. Montreal had a number of chances but rarely looked convincing as an attacking force. This is Montreal’s first season and I expect them to struggle. I spoke briefly with Montreal Radio station CJAD 800’s Grant Needham, after the game had ended. He reckoned several of the team had under performed on the day. CJAD are delighted to have the rights to broadcast the Impact’s games having lost the NHL Hockey rights to broadcast the legendary Montreal Canadiens games to their rival city station TSN TEAM 990.
So that was my first MLS game and most likely it won’t be my last. As a contrast I would like to see the Montreal Impact play a home game. They will be moving from the Olympic Stadium to the newly expanded Saputo Stadium which has been their home ground since their inception, in July. Vancouver Whitecaps boast that they have sold out their 17,000 season tickets. By contrast while the early games in the Olympic Stadium for Montreal Impact have sold copious amounts of individual tickets only 7,000 season tickets for the Saputo had been sold at the time of writing. Whether the audience for soccer in Montreal proves to be event junkies, or not, only the unfolding of the rest of the 2012 season will tell.
Declan Hughes can be heard on Monday nights presenting The Absolute Game on Dublin City FM.