Rain City blues – A year spent with the Vancouver Whitecaps

I would first like to start by debunking some myths about Canada – no it doesn’t snow 365 days a year, Canadian people don’t look like they do in South Park and Canadian bacon isn’t actually that good.

Some truths about Canada however are that they do say ‘eh’ quite a bit, Celine Dion is the national shame and ice hockey is a religion. That being said, not every sports fan in the true north strong and free are mad for the stick and puck. There is a very real and fanatical football culture in the country from the three Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs right the way down to grassroots.

I have just returned from a year in Vancouver, British Columbia where I worked with the Vancouver Whitecaps and I got a close-up view of this. The ‘Caps as they are known were formed in 1974 secured their first Championship by the end of that decade. The 1979 NASL title-winning team are stuff of legend in the city and amongst the fan base and that is largely because that is the only major trophy the club – and city – has won.

Vancouver is not exactly the title-town of Canada. The beloved hockey team the Canucks have never won a Stanley Cup title since their formation in 1970. They came tantalizingly close in 1994 before falling to the New York Rangers in a winner-takes-all Game seven. The current Canucks team is on an upward curve but the Whitecaps? There’s a big question mark hanging over that.

The team missed out on the playoffs for the third straight year last year in what was, like many sports and leagues, an unprecedented year for the MLS. The year started with the ‘MLS is Back’ tournament in Orlando where all points not only contributed the mini tournament itself but a wider league season which for the Whitecaps moved back to Vancouver for Canadian derbies against Montreal Impact and Toronto FC before another relocation to Portland which was their home for the rest of the season to avoid border restrictions between the US and Canada.

Still with me? Well, after all of that turmoil they came 9th out of 12 in the Western Conference which was one spot out of the playoffs. A disappointing finish but a better one than the rock bottom of 2019.

That season was the one I spent the latter half of with the club and was an incredible introduction to Canadian football culture and those who are part of it. Despite that last place finish, I had my eyes opened to an undercurrent and a sub-culture of football in the city. Main Street in Vancouver is the hipster hub of an already hipster city and the Whitecaps scream ‘Main Street’. While ice hockey is the everyman’s sport, football – or soccer – has absolutely captured the hearts of those who don’t quite fit into a hockey jersey.

Football as a whole in North America is laughed down and poured scorn on. This is largely because of the way the ‘Yanks’ do football. We’ve all seen the “fight and win” video from the Whitecaps’ biggest rivals the Seattle Sounders or the “You better watch your mouth” chant from Atlanta. These are painfully cringe worthy clips, but they do not in any way represent what I saw when I was at the Whitecap’s home ground – BC Place.

Sport in North America is a completely different animal to what we know on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a land where 110,000 people gather to watch unpaid college athletes and where franchises dominate as opposed to clubs, but the one sport where that is different is football. Vancouver’s football fans range from the many different immigrants that make up the city to skull and crossbones-toting, to denim-sporting bikers, to the up-market city-slickers that also help give British Columbia’s largest city the moniker ‘Hollywood North’.

The Whitecaps give a home to those people who perhaps do not feel so at home in the incredible, beautiful, and diverse city that is Vancouver. Many people in the city are first-generation or descendants of immigrants. I, myself, was welcomed to the city and was told on more than one occasion “You’re Canadian now”. Regardless of what happens on the pitch, whenever people are inside BC Place Stadium on a match day, everyone is at home.

Match day usually starts for many in the Library Square Public House or Moxie’s Sports Bar on West Georgia Street before a march towards Beatty Street and into Terry Fox Plaza where fans congregate to meet the team bus. This plaza is usually inhabited by skaters who attempt kick flips in the shadow of the stadium, but it is the supporters’ hub and fan zone on match day. West Georgia is the busiest street in the city and almost reminds one of New York City with the swathe of taxis and buses but when the ‘Caps play, it is a sea of blue and white and the noise can be heard all across the city.

The Whitecaps’ first MLS season in 2011 was played at Empire Field in the east of the city. Empire Field was only a temporary structure while BC Place – which is shared with the BC Lions of the CFL (Canada’s NFL) – was getting refurbished following the 2010 Winter Olympics. BC Place closer resembles stadiums like the Emirates or the Olympic Stadium but is not quite as ‘soulless’ as these new arenas are often accused of being. While also not quite an Anfield-esque structure surrounded by terraced housing, it is in the heart of downtown and as well as the afore-mentioned Beatty, narrow streets such as Smithe, Cambie and Robson all filled with quirky bars and restaurants meander their way to the arena which is lit up at night a la Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena.

The support base of the club – which has been represented by names such as 1966 World Cup winner Alan Ball who was part of the title-winning team in ‘79 and, more recently, Robert Earnshaw and Kenny Miller – is a cross-section of the inhabitants of ‘Vancity’ and supporters groups such as Southsiders, Curva Collective and Rain City Brigade make the stadium loud and colourful on match day but are quick to criticise and scrutinise the club when needs be. The club’s hierarchy and ownership – including NBA legend and BC native Steve Nash – were and still are a target of a lot of angst from the hardcore supporters for their haphazard leadership and poor investment.

Figures released just this month by FIFA prove this in the starkest of ways. The Whitecaps were the top North American spender in the 2020 transfer market ahead of five other MLS clubs and four Liga MX outfits. Of the six MLS clubs, only two made last year’s playoffs which shows that Vancouver were not the only club whose investment did not bear fruit. However, the fact that the other two Canadian sides made the playoffs – albeit exiting at the first hurdle – without even cracking the top ten spenders will have stung many on Canada’s west coast.

Another case in point for this was the June 2020 firing of CEO Mark Pannes. Pannes had most recently served in the same role with AS Roma and basketball’s New York Knicks and was just six months into a four-year contract but was already extremely popular with the fans with whom he conversed with and connected with regularly. This was a breath of fresh air for fans of the ‘Caps and they revolted when the Bostonian was dismissed without much of an explanation from ownership.

Rewind to November 2019 and the appointment of Axel Schuster as Sporting Director was greeted with great optimism as he came in with similar experience with Mainz and Schalke in his homeland. The record signing shortly after this appointment of Canadian international striker Lucas Cavallini from Mexican side Puebla meant the club went into Christmas on a wave of optimism.

However, following signings such as popular Portuguese midfielder Janio Bikel, Serbian centre half Ranko Veselinovic and Colombian winger Cristian Dajome were credited to Pannes and his out-of-the-blue dismissal is synonymous with the chaotic way in which the club is run.

On the pitch in 2020, a goalkeeping crisis forced 21-year-old Canadian Thomas Hasal into his first senior appearance and to say he excelled would be an understatement. He became christened ‘the Saskatoon Schmeichel’ after some incredible saves led Vancouver to the knockout stages of the Orlando tournament against all odds and his consistent performances continued until injury curtailed his season in September.

Head coach Marc dos Santos was forced into squad shuffling throughout the season due to various injuries and unavailability – including Cavallini who did not travel to Florida after he tragically lost two family members to COVID-19 – but this meant that young players such as Hasal, Theo Bair and Michael Baldissimo could shine.

Baldissimo is a native of Vancouver suburb Burnaby and announced his presence with a stunning goal and somersault celebration in a 3-2 victory over Toronto FC in September. The 20-year-old looks like he could hold down a place in the side for 2021 with a series of commanding midfield performances. He is local in the most Vancouver way in that he is a Filipino-Canadian and many of the club’s supporters see so much of themselves in him. It is hoped that the no. 55 will solve the long-running issues in midfield for years to come.

The Whitecaps’ most famous academy-graduate reflects that diversity. Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies was born to Liberian parents in a refugee camp in Ghana in 2000 before fleeing to Edmonton at the age of five and joining the Whitecaps academy at age 14. Just two years later, he made his senior debut and the rest is history.

Vancouver is an incredibly diverse, beautiful and complicated city and, arguably, the Whitecaps represent this more than anything. Some seeds of hope were sewn in 2020 and nothing would lift the spirits more than a playoff run in 2021 – maybe even if it coincided with one on the other side of Pacific Boulevard at the Canucks’ Rogers Arena. My own experience and recent history tells us that even if this does happen, it’ll be like the bumpy, windy roads of the mountainous North Vancouver region. They wouldn’t have it any other way in Vancity.

The Author

Mark Strange

I am a freelance writer who has been published in rugby, baseball and football. I am an avid sports fan in general and also follow ice hockey, basketball and American football. I recently lived in Vancouver for a year were I worked with the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS. I am a bit of a football hipster and, as well as the Whitecaps, my favourite teams include Feyenoord, Braga and Inter. My Twitter handle is @realmarkstrange

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