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How the Vancouver Whitecaps Hit the Major Leagues

Team president Bobby Lenarduzzi played a record 312 games with the Whitecaps before turning to coaching. Finally, 40 years in, he's hit the big leagues
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Vancouver Whitecaps president Bobby Lenarduzzi has boosted local soccer for more than 30 years. This spring, his big-league dreams finally come true Dustin Snipes
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Team president Bobby Lenarduzzi played a record 312 games with the Whitecaps before turning to coaching. Finally, 40 years in, he's hit the big leagues

On March 19, 21,000 jubilant fans will gather to celebrate the rebirth of the Vancouver Whitecaps. At a temporary structure next to the PNE bearing the anachronistic name of Empire Field, they'll cheer as the home players run out in their slick new blue-and-white strip, emblazoned with a mountains-and-waves logo and the name of their biggest sponsor, Bell. (The deal, said to be worth $4 million, is part of an overall sponsorship assault that puts Vancouver ahead of every other franchise in Major League Soccer -- including New York and Los Angeles.) Then, for the first time in 27 years, a top-tier Vancouver soccer team will kick off a new season.

The opening day's opponent is Toronto FC, bitter rival and the only other Canadian outfit in the 18-team league. The sell-out game will be broadcast live on TSN and Team 1410 radio; the big screens will flicker with ads for Adidas, Electronic Arts, BMO, and KPMG financial services; and the chanting devotees will get in the spirit by chugging Budweisers and other brews from Labatts, another major sponsor. Those with Bell contracts will relive the goals on their smartphones.

Among those in the stands will be some old-timers who still remember the first incarnation of the Whitecaps, in the long-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL). A few may even have watched the team's first game, in May 1974, on this very spot, once the site of Empire Stadium, the city's first sports venue (and the place where Bannister and Landy ran the Miracle Mile and Elvis Presley and the Beatles played their only Vancouver shows).

For one fan in particular-a burly 55-year-old Italian-Canadian who grew up only a few blocks away-the season opener will be nothing less than a resurrection. As a 19-year-old, Robert Lenarduzzi joined the Whitecaps in that first East Side fixture and went on to play all 11 seasons for the team (312 games-a record for the NASL). He took the field in 1977 when Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, two of the greatest players ever, came to town with the mighty New York Cosmos.

Two years later he helped the Whitecaps win the league's biggest prize, the Soccer Bowl. Then the bubble burst: the NASL fizzled and the Whitecaps stumbled along in a succession of minor leagues. But Lenarduzzi continued to play, to coach, and to manage various versions of the team. Today, his title is club president, but he's considerably more-part mascot, part elder statesman, part guardian spirit. And if it weren't for his tireless (some would say monomaniacal) obsession with soccer and the Whitecaps, the team's rebirth would never have happened.

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