[MLS SPOTLIGHT]Vancouver opened its new facility, B.C. Place, in the same manner it departed a previous home, Empire Place, by losing to a Northwest rival. Yet general manager Bob Lendarduzzi, who played in both venues for the NASL Whitecaps three decades ago, is hopeful the second MLS season will far surpass the first.
The hard part is over. Now comes the really tough part.
Granted just about everything he wanted while negotiating the Whitecaps’ interests regarding the renovation of B.C. Place, which they opened last week with a 1-0 loss to Northwest rival Portland, the wishes of Vancouver general manager Bob Lenarduzzi are much more pragmatic.
“Well, I’ve found that just like a player or coach, I go with the ebbs and flows of results,” says the Vancouver native and former North American Soccer League star who played for and coached his native country. The results to date are depressing.
At 4-16-10, the ‘Caps are the bottom most of 18 teams, and can only gaze enviously at expansion predecessors Seattle, Philadelphia, and Portland, all of which are in the playoff picture. A 3-1 loss to the Sounders Sept. 24 that closed out the team’s brief stay at another of its former NASL haunts, Empire Field, he believes personified the team’s inaugural foray into MLS.
“In the first half I thought we looked the better side and they created very, very little and we had some pretty good chances," said Lenarduzzi, who played more than 300 NASL games during his career from 1974 to 1984. “I thought our goal was offside, so we got away with a bit of a break there, but [Gershon] Koffie kind of summed up the game and the whole season for us.
“He’s going to a very, very good player and I thought he played very well in the first half, and then five minutes before the end of the half he gets the ball and plays them into the attack, and they get the penalty from that. He just played a stupid ball into the space where he thought someone was running.”
With that penalty kick, Seattle tied the game, 1-1, and then dominated the second half to win going away. Losing to a former NASL and current Cascadia Cup rival cut deeply enough; the method of defeat twisted the blade a few turns.
“It was just a mental lapse like we’ve been guilty of pretty much the whole season,” said Lenarduzzi, 56, who joined the team (then known as the 86ers) more than a decade ago while it was in the USL and has overseen its return to the top tier. “I never got the feeling Seattle were in distress. They just kept plugging away and plugging away and eventually they got what they expected to get. A lot of it is psychological at this point and we were still waiting for a way to lose. They were waiting for a way to win and more often than not they’re doing it.”
The smashing success at the gate of Seattle and Portland, which joined MLS along with Vancouver for the 2011 season, has overshadowed some exemplary work by the ‘Caps. In 13 games at Empire and one at B.C. Place, average attendance is 20,608, which ranks behind only the Sounders (36,932) and Galaxy (23,106).
While that scoreline against Seattle sickened his stomach -- results-oriented guy, remember? -- everything else about the farewell to Empire delighted him.
“If I were a fan, it was a great game,” he said. “It was going back and forth, a lot of shots, so in terms of entertainment aspect of it, it was good. The atmosphere was good, they had quite a few people up, and they got our crowd going.
“Those are the things you can’t forget about it, because five or six years ago we were playing in front of friends and family and nobody cared about us. We were able to keep a presence in the marketplace, albeit at a lower level with the 86ers, after the Whitecaps had gone by the wayside with the NASL [after the 1984 season].
“We had some success at a smaller venue, we were still getting 4,000 or 5,000 on a regular basis. So we’ve been in the marketplace, but the jump up -- and seeing what happened in Toronto -- convinced me that if we were able to go that route, we could generate a similar sort of interest.”
The entry of Toronto FC in 2007 formally opened up the Canadian market, which Lenarduzzi felt hadn’t been seriously considered during the formative years of MLS after it kicked off in 1996 with 10 U.S. teams. TFC also ushered in a new era of rowdy, enthusiastic, colorful supporters who not only liven up home games by chanting and cheering en masse, but also travel in large numbers to nearby rivals, and sometimes those farther away.
B.C. Place originally opened with a Whitecaps’ NASL match in 1983. Vancouver beat the Sounders, 2-1, in front of 60,342 fans. “To put 60,000 in there and be a part of the first sporting event in that stadium was fantastic, and at the time the building was state of the art,” recalls Lenarduzzi. “And it was a domed stadium and there were only a few of those.”
Now, B.C. Place has a retractable roof along with all the modern amenities, and a second “roof” secured by cables and made of fabric that shields the upper deck. The ‘Caps, which share tenancy with the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League, can use the larger capacity for major events yet offer a more intimate setting for MLS games.
‘We don’t need 60,000 seats,” he says. “Now maybe, hopefully, we will when we play Barcelona or Manchester U or Real Madrid, but we wanted to have that intimate atmosphere. Part of our negotiation with the government was to get a second roof in there. It’s never been done anywhere else in the world so this is the first crack at it.
“We’re configuring the lower bowl for 21,000, but there’s the ability to put in 27,000. We won’t go to 27,000 until we feel there’s a demand that necessitates that.”
Once this brutal inaugural season is over, the demand will be for better results. The club fired head coach Teitur Thordarson early in the season, with technical director Tom Soehn taking over. He’ll soon step aside for Martin Rennie, who did some impressive work with Carolina RailHawks of the newer, as in second division, NASL. However long the grace period may be for a new team playing in a slick new facility, Lenarduzzi doesn’t want to hit that outer limit.
“Personally, I’ve always said to people that my objective when I first started playing and then as I was getting toward my latter years on the field was to never get a real job,” he says of coaching Canada and the 86ers before moving to the front office. I’ve actually avoided that. I don’t feel what I’m doing is a job.
“Now, yes you feel the pressure of results, but it’s still the game and the feeling I get when I go to a game and the butterflies in my stomach are no different than when I played. Of course now I can’t do anything about it and I just have to sit and watch. I’m delighted I was given a second kick at it.”