Ever since its birth in 1994, North America’s Major League Soccer has been living in the shadows of the main players on European shores. But in recent years, the captures of global superstars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry have made people stand up and take notice – and the Vancouver Whitecaps could be the next big thing as they enter the MLS in 2011.
One man who has experienced the heart beat of the Caps’ revolution, which sees them become only the second Canadian team in the top division of the “Franchise”, dominated by American sides, is former AFC Bournemouth press officer Niall Malone. Malone spent the summer as Media Relations and Broadcast Assistant and fixed his eyes on the incredible vision that the club is building, epitomised by the ongoing construction of a retractable roof on the $600million BC Place Stadium, which will be ready for the Whitecaps debut season in the MLS next year.
Much like the United States and Canada as a whole, Vancouver has had a rich tradition in the likes of American Football, Ice Hockey and Baseball but Soccer – one of the most played sports in the US – is enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity, one of the key attractions that brought Malone to Canada.
He said: “It had always been a long held ambition of mine to work abroad, for a sports team. America and Canada were always massive attractions with the Franchise industry out there.”
And amongst Vancouver’s picturesque surroundings, the Whitecaps are creating their own impressive image. As well as a state-of-the-art training ground, the Whitecaps have one of the best Residency Schemes across the whole of North America – which is the equivalent of the British youth academy system. But as with every successful sports team, the infrastructure, players and staff are an integral part of the club’s drive to the big time. Vancouver join MLS newcomers Portland Timbers having finished second in their North American Soccer League Conference, and are in the process of bringing in players with experience in Europe.
Malone added: “The residency programme out there is fairly uncommon, but the Whitecaps have arguably the best one anywhere in North America and they continue to produce lots of players for their first team of good standard as well.”
Under the guidance of Head Coach Teitur Thordason, who has a range of experience at top-flight clubs in France and Scandinavia, the Whitecaps have won a League Championship and made a League Final appearance during the last three seasons. Thordarson, who has worked with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and Aston Villa boss Gerrard Houllier during an established career, secured a contract extension to guide the team in their first taste of the MLS.
The standard made an immediate impact with Malone, who said: “I was really impressed with the quality of the players they have at the moment and some of the players they have been recruiting from other clubs. They have got players that have played in France, Germany and elsewhere so their experience shouldn’t be a problem.
“Whether or not they will sign a designated player, which in our terms is the equivalent of Los Angeles Galaxy signing David Beckham, remains to be seen. I’m not sure if that is the way they want to build their brand. I expect if they do, their focus will still remain on their residency programme.”
The designated player rule allows MLS teams to sign an international player of star quality, and they have restricted the amount of designated players after a number of teams went into financial meltdown in the early years of American Soccer.
Big name captures like Beckham, Henry, ex-Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg and former Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez have certainly boosted the popularity of the sport in the United States and Canada, and the Whitecaps have their own man who has reached the pinnacle of the English Premier League in Chief Executive Officer Paul Barber. Former Tottenham Hotspur executive director Barber has built a reputation as one of the top executives in European football and is an example of the Whitecaps’ ambition.
“The ‘Caps are at one of, if not the most, exciting chapters in their history. To be part of that was fantastic. And there is a massive appetite for football out there. Their head coach has got good pedigree; he likes to play attractive football and is really experienced. Overall I think they are set up to go forward”.
Malone, who has worked with Tottenham as well as being Press Officer at Bournemouth, said there’s no reason why Vancouver can’t establish themselves as a top MLS side.
“I really don’t think they will struggle in the MLS at all – whether it be fan base or player acquisition. Even down to the fact that their kit sponsor is Adidas and their corporate sponsor is Bell Canada – they’re a serious organisation and I think they will do really well.”
So it is clear that the Whitecaps are moving forward fast and could be a force to be reckoned with as Major League Soccer continues to grow. Having hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver has certainly shown it is a destination worthy of sport as a global spectacle, and a Soccer team that was relatively unknown outside Canada may well bring a worldwide sporting fever to Vancouver again.