As first impressions go, Vancouver Whitecaps have introduced themselves to the MLS in some style on their return to the top flight after a 27-year absence. After a 4-2 demolition of new rivals Toronto FC, and with ‘Whitecaps Fever’ sweeping the city, hopes are high that the tag of "expansion team" will not prevent Vancouver from challenging the elite.
Though the Whitecaps had been playing in the United Soccer League (USL) First Division before this season, a series of positive moves over the past few years have positioned the team to adapt quickly to life in the MLS and there are recent examples to both follow – Seattle Sounders – and learn from – Toronto FC.
In head coach Teitur Thordarson, Vancouver have a wily and successful mastermind, who has used his experience in Norway, Estonia and his native Iceland to built a solid foundation. Good things have followed, including USL silverware, the addition of former Tottenham Hotspur executive director Paul Barber and shrewd signings in the MLS Super Draft. The final piece in the jigsaw – for now – was striker Eric Hassli, who impressed in the Swiss Super League for FC Zurich, as a designated player.
And the Whitecaps have made it clear that they are not just in the MLS to make up the numbers. During pre-season, Thordarson explained: "We understand we are new in the league and it might take a bit of time to adapt to it. We want to be competitive from day one and make sure we are ready for every game played. I must say if we would manage to get into the playoffs that would be something great." However, the vast majority of 2011 MLS previews predicted that Vancouver would, in fact, be propping up the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
While ice hockey remains the hottest ticket in Vancouver, the city has embraced the Whitecaps and enthusiasm has reached a new level since the MLS decided to welcome the team into the top flight. Empire Field, the Whitecaps’ temporary home stadium until a move to BC Place, holds just over 22,500 fans and the club has already sold more than 15,500 season tickets for 2011. The MLS will undoubtedly have taken note, given that Montreal Impact are set to become the league’s third Canadian team next year, further boosting the development of the game in Canada.
It was perhaps appropriate that Vancouver kicked off the season at home to Toronto FC, who – five years after joining the MLS – are yet to make the playoffs and are not expected to be among the pacesetters again this year. With six managers in five seasons, it is hardly the blueprint to follow. Any superiority the visitors may have felt was blown to pieces as the Whitecaps earned a deserved 4-2 victory in front of a sell-out crowd, with Hassli scoring twice in a thrilling debut.
But this team is far more than just Hassli’s power and deadly finishing. Vancouver native Terry Dunfield looks an energetic force in midfield while striker Atiba Harris has MLS experience with three different clubs. The defence, led by captain Jay DeMerit, the United States international and former Watford centre-back, was exposed on a few occasions, but will surely improve as the season progresses.
Make no mistake, life is always tough for expansion teams. From the step up in quality to the increased scrutiny and pressure, the challenges are there, and the Whitecaps will face much sterner tests elsewhere. After all, Toronto FC have a new manager in Aron Winter, who is still finding his way, and several contract disputes that are now spilling over into the new season. But on this evidence, Vancouver will surprise their fair share of opponents this season. Few teams will relish a trip to a rocking Empire Field and Thordarson’s playoff dream may yet be attainable. It is hard to say the same about Toronto FC, though Winter’s side possesses an equally enthusiastic, vocal fan base.
The MLS season is well and truly underway, but it is, of course, a long campaign and nothing will be decided until October. However, the early signs suggest these two Canadian teams are heading in opposite directions, with the Whitecaps ready to strengthen the case for welcoming expansion teams.