How the Vancouver Whitecaps Hit the Major 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.

By 2002, the Whitecaps had hit an all-time nadir. Lenarduzzi, now married with two teenage kids, had been barely keeping the franchise afloat for years. The team was struggling on and off the pitch, and attendance was pitiful. The owner, financier David Stadnyk, had had enough. He fired Lenarduzzi, sold the club to the minor league it played in, and walked away, but Lenarduzzi kept coming to work (without a salary), searching for an angel investor-which he eventually found in Greg Kerfoot, whom he met through a mutual friend, the brew pub and clothing mogul Mark James.

The publicity-shy Kerfoot made his fortune when he sold Crystal Decisions Software for $1.2 billion in 2003. He’s known for building valuable homes in Whistler (assessed at $13.5 million), Kelowna ($6.9 million), and West Van (pieds-à-terre assessed at $5.45 million and $6.7 million), and for his patient, strategic approach to business development. He had been quietly investing in local sport-notably the Canadian women’s soccer team-and he liked Lenarduzzi’s passion and commitment. So he bought the Whitecaps and the Breakers, an associated women’s team, in 2003 and united them under a new name: Whitecaps FC.

The Whitecaps began strong in 1974, but the huge crowds and world pennants eventually disappeared. Now they’re back in the Major Soccer League. Click here to find out how they can learn from past mistakes to win big this season.

Kerfoot and Lenarduzzi envisioned a residential academy to develop promising young players and a whole battery of teams, including youth, women’s, and lower-league sides-the men’s team is just the tip of the pyramid. The MLS enforces a salary cap of $2.67 million, so you can’t just buy a squad of fully formed players, as happens in places like England. Instead, the Whitecaps’ plan was to invest at the bottom end and develop a conveyor belt of young players. That may seem like an obvious strategy, but few clubs bother because it takes many years; Lenarduzzi and Kerfoot were content to focus on the long term. Meanwhile, the development phase was not without hiccups. The club’s plans to build a $31-million training facility, for instance, are still on hold; ground was almost broken in Delta in 2009, but the local council pulled out at the last minute, and the club’s many teams are still training at a complex at SFU Burnaby. Kerfoot also pushed the grand vision of a Waterfront Stadium, a $70-million open-air facility over the railway tracks north of Gastown on land he bought there in 2005. The public liked it, but neighbourhood groups and architects raised concerns about pell-mell development of the waterfront and the city put it on hold. (The Whitecaps haven’t entirely given up on that idea.)

In 2008, three new investors-Jeff Mallett, who helped build Yahoo! into a global brand; Steve Luczo, CEO of disk-drive manufacturer Seagate Technologies; and basketball star Steve Nash, whose brother Martin played for the Whitecaps for 10 years before retiring in October-joined the ownership group. Momentum, and assets, were growing fast. Then, on March 19, 2009, two years to the day before the kickoff, the partners learned that they had won a spot in the MLS. The fee was $35 million, upfront. Finally, the big leagues were calling.

In his playing prime, Lenarduzzi was a heartthrob, one of those classic ’70s pinups who looked like he could be in the Partridge family. He had a hip replacement last spring that gave him a limp and a crutch for a while. But he’s lost none of his easy charm and is still good-looking in a shaggy, Jackson Browne kind of way.

“I’ve been fortunate,” he said at the club’s stylish waterfront offices in Gastown last year. “I’ve always wanted to avoid getting a real job. I don’t consider this a real job”-he gestured at the trophy-lined office, the harbour outside dotted with taxiing seaplanes. “I don’t even consider this a job.”

Robert Italo Lenarduzzi was born in East Vancouver in 1955, the third son of immigrants just off the boat from Udine, in northern Italy. His dad was an artisanal cheesemaker with soccer in his blood; as soon as Bobby could walk, he was tagging along behind his two elder brothers, who played semi-pro for “the ethnic team,” Columbus FC. Most Vancouver teams were “ethnic” back then; Columbus had only Italian players, and there was a Croatian team, a German team, a Scottish team. The nationalistic tensions that simmered away all week came to a boil on Sunday, especially between the immigrants-the teeming poor of a port city-and the Anglo establishment who kept the workers at arm’s length everywhere else. It made for some passionate games.

“The team that was non-ethnic was called the Firefighters,” Lenarduzzi recalled. “When the Firefighters played Columbus, it was a bloodbath. They just kicked the shit out of each other. And there’d be 2,500 people there. Every now and then the riot police would have to come in to separate them. It was great!”

Lenarduzzi was a ballboy for the Columbus side. “I stood behind the goal, just lapping it up. For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a pro soccer player.” At age 14, he was invited to join the youth team of Reading, in England’s fourth division. His mother was heartbroken but let him go, and he spent five years learning the trade in the game’s heartland. When he returned, in 1974, it was to join the newly formed Whitecaps, alongside big brother Sam.

Over the next 11 seasons, Lenarduzzi played every position, even filling in as goalkeeper in one match. But mostly he was a defender, the least glamorous job on the pitch, patient and cautious, running hard, reading the game and shutting down the opposition. He says he was never the most skilled player, but he was “honest and hardworking. I was committed and just loved playing the sport.”

The first time Pele came to town, with a star-studded Cosmos team that included German legend Franz Beckenbauer, “We got a crowd of 30,000 plus, and we ended up winning the game 5-3. That was the pivotal point for us.” The team went on a 13-game winning streak and then, in front of three million spectators on network TV, beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 1979 Soccer Bowl. The September 11 homecoming was the largest gathering ever seen in Vancouver. “It was unbelievable. We were coming back on the plane from New York and our PR guy was handing out parade routes.” All he could think was, this is going to be embarrassing if no one comes out. But there were thousands at the airport. “We got on the bus, went downtown to Robson Square, and there were 100,000 people in downtown Vancouver that day. It was like we were rock stars.”

At the press conference to announce the MLS deal, in March 2009, Jeff Mallett compared the Whitecaps’ new ownership to the Beatles. Kerfoot was John, the deep one, the dreamer; Nash was Paul, the cool public face of the group; Luczo was George, quiet but essential. He gave himself Ringo, keeping the others on the beat. He was joking, but only partly; it’s an impressive group, unique in pro sports. All four made their money in the States, but only Luczo didn’t grow up in B.C. The others are doing this for sentimental, community reasons, as part of a long-term commitment to sport and to the city. It’s not just an investment, though of course none of them is looking to lose money-or soccer games. In Mallett’s words: “I like to win. I know Bobby does. And Mr. Nash, he’s, shall we say, competitive?”

Word got out the team was looking for a home, and it happened that an old one was looking for an occupant. With the Olympics in the offing, premier Gordon Campbell needed tenants to justify the interior refit of BC Place, which was being rushed through for the 2010 opening ceremonies. The Lions were already onboard, and the province asked the Whitecaps if they would share the facility if more improvements were made and a retractable roof added. The Whitecaps-still in the process of applying for admission to the MLS-said yes and the province committed $365 million (since swollen to $565 million) to the project. The work on that much-discussed new roof was slow to start-the new stadium wouldn’t be ready for day one. The soccer configuration includes 21,000 seats, with room to grow if needed. (The team doesn’t want to repeat the mistake of Toronto FC, which underestimated demand, built a small stadium they can’t expand, and have sold out every home game since.) Until October, the Whitecaps will play at Empire Field.

Then, in March 2010, the Whitecaps announced another major coup: they had hired a new CEO, Englishman Paul Barber, away from London’s Tottenham Hotspur. Barber had been executive director at one of the most storied clubs in the game but wanted to try something new. Since he took up his post in February 2010, he’s been assisting the owners on the business side of rebuilding. Lenarduzzi, who remains the face of the club, has become more of a figurehead. When he does roll up his sleeves, it’s to help head coach Teitur Thordarson and scout Tom Soehn build a competitive team, so they don’t get humiliated by L.A. or New York or Toronto.

The Whitecaps could still take advantage of the league’s so-called Beckham Rule and sign a big-name “designated player.” Toronto has one, Canadian striker Julian de Guzman, though so far he, like his team, has been underwhelming. But their first big signing was U.S. international Jay DeMerit, a tough defender in Lenarduzzi’s mould who played four games in last summer’s World Cup; he’s been named captain. The team then surprised onlookers by using its number one draft pick on a little-known 17-year-old striker, Omar Salgado; because he’s American and underage, he’s not eligible to play for the team until he turns 18, in September. Once again, they gambled on youth and potential, what Lenarduzzi likes to call “upside.”

Paul Barber is also encouraging competition between Vancouver and local rivals Seattle Sounders (who joined MLS two years ago) and Portland Timbers (who also joined in March). All three in the so-called Cascadia Triangle were powerhouses in the NASL, and the Sounders are a model for the Whitecaps; they sold out every home game in their first two years and made it to the playoffs both times. Barber engineered an agreement whereby the three clubs will each set aside at least 500 seats for visiting fans at derby games, and encourage supporters’ groups to organize travel packages. This could build into the kind of tasty rivalry common in Europe and South America but almost unknown in North America. And it will give a voice to soccer’s rabid fans, groups like the Vancouver Southsiders, who make the matches so much rowdier than other sports. (They’re the ones who’ll be chanting “We’re Blue / We’re White / We’re fucking dynamite / Vancouver! Vancouver!” on March 19.)

For the next six months they’ll be singing at Empire Field, just around the corner from the house where Bobby Lenarduzzi grew up and his mum still lives. “She’ll be able to hear the roar of the crowd again,” he says with a smile. Lenarduzzi himself will be sweating in the stands; 40 years in, the very possibility of losing still makes him physically sick. “I still get the same butterflies now, just like I did when I played. The only difference now is that I can’t do anything about it, except watch. Still, I love that feeling. I never want it to go away.”

The Whitecaps began strong in 1974, but the huge crowds and world pennants eventually disappeared. Now they’re back in the Major Soccer League. Click here to find out how they can learn from past mistakes to win big this season.