White is the colour, and all that. An interesting season lies ahead for a familiar name in North American soccer history. New to IBWM, here's Charlie Skillen with the details.
On March 15th the MLS 2011 season will kick off. Away from the usual UK headline-grabbers - David Beckham and Thierry Henry - one of the main sources of intrigue for fans will be the return of one of the best-loved teams in North American history, the Vancouver Whitecaps.
One of two new franchises to compete in this season’s MLS, The Whitecaps are fondly-remembered from the glitzy days of the 1970s North American Soccer League (NASL). This is not only hugely exciting for the still-thriving soccer community in Vancouver, but also interesting for fans on the other side of the Atlantic, as the Whitecaps were one of the most British-infused, and best, teams in the NASL.
The NASL is often remembered by British fans as the pasture for slightly past-it heroes of the early 70s. Best, Osgood, Marsh et al all went ‘over there’ with varying degrees of success, coming back armed with tales of teams arriving onto the field on horseback, or opponents in tassel-adorned kits. The Whitecaps employed this well-worn tactic to great effect, yet they also took on numerous young English players, including a certain Peter Beardsley in 1981.
Beardsley was only 20, and fresh from winning promotion to Division Two with Carlisle when he arrived in Vancouver. The casual manner in which manager and former Leeds midfielder Johnny Giles secured the future Newcastle, Liverpool and England legend offers a humorous picture of the time, far removed from the huge multi-national scouting networks and Football Manager-influenced pub knowledge of today. Giles remembers “no English clubs were after him, which just wouldn’t happen now. He was like a schoolboy, he didn’t drink or smoke…he’d just sit on the plane to away games holding a packet of sweets like a big kid.”
The youngster scored an impressive 20 goals in 48 games in his first NASL spell, earning a move back to England and to Manchester United. However, having managed only a solitary League Cup outing at Old Trafford, he returned to Vancouver the following year, making a further 25 appearances. Beardsley devotes a chapter of his autobiography to his time at the Whitecaps, speaking fondly and saying he was tempted numerous times by a more permanent stay, but that the pull of his hometown club Newcastle United was too great. Beardsley remains one of the very few major British players to grace the NASL at the dawn of a great career, rather than the tail-end of one.
The spotting of Beardsley’s talent was just one of the indications of Giles’ success as manager with the Whitecaps. As a giant of Done Revie’s Leeds United team, Giles’ career as a coach is often overlooked. He presided over a time of rejuvenation for the Republic of Ireland and West Bromwich Albion simultaneously in the 1970s, all the while maintaining a playing career for both. After this, he managed Vancouver for three seasons, including 1982 when he was named NASL Coach of the Year. His team for this achievement included the young Beardsley, as well as former teammates Peter Lorimer and Terry Yorath. Giles, too, looks back favourably on his time with the Canadian team. “People think football in America is a bit of a joke,” said the Irishman in a recent interview, “but I found the people within the game to be very intelligent.”
Whilst the curious recruitment of Beardsley and the tenure of Giles hold resonance for the British fan, it is not the most revered moment for Whitecaps fans. That honour is held, undoubtedly, in winning the 1979 Soccer Bowl Championship. With the new team’s debut season on the horizon, the Vancouver press and fans have not been slow in remembering this great occasion, which was the first time a sports team from the city had ever won a National Championship, and in particular the thrilling semi-final series with the famed New York Cosmos.
The final itself, against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, has paled in historical reverence compared with the Cosmos games. The Whitecaps team was led by Alan Ball and safeguarded by ex-Wolves keeper Phil Parkes, yet were the heavy underdogs against a star-studded Cosmos side, who, although Pele-less, counted Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto and Johan Neeskens in their ranks. After a bizarre concoction of game-deciders only the entertainment-seeking NASL could create, Vancouver came out on top, mostly thanks to a controversial goal from young striker Carl Valentine at the end of a 30-minute mini-game, played after 90 minutes, golden goal and penalties. This drew the tie, and a second penalty shootout was to be played in New York a week later. Beckenbauer missed for the Cosmos and the Whitecaps triumphed.
The result represented the biggest shock in NASL history. ABC Commentator Jim MacKay’s observation that “Vancouver must be like a deserted village right now”, referring to the whole city being glued to their televisions, has gone down in folklore, and was not an understatement, as 100,000 people lined the streets to welcome the team back to Vancouver after the Soccer Bowl win over Tampa Bay. This underlined the popularity of the Whitecaps in their hometown, as did the local radio hit ‘White is the Colour’, a direct rip-off of the Chelsea equivalent.
The new Whitecaps haven’t shied away from their illustrious history in the run-up to the MLS season. 1979 hero Valentine is an ambassador for the club, and the team will line up in near-identical kits to their NASL predecessors. However, it is a lot for Coach Teitur Thordarson and his team to live up to, such is the fond remembrance of the Whitecaps name in Vancouver. Although they have recruited USA World Cup starter and former Watford defender Jay DeMerit as the team captain and Omar Salgado, who was the first overall pick in the MLS 2011 draft, the squad has still been criticised as threadbare. “We’re still looking for maybe the main pieces up top,” former Icelandic international Thordarson admitted, “But I am confident that we will find the right pieces and the team will be playing good attacking soccer.”
Having reportedly been rejected by Robbie Savage, the Whitecaps roster is currently looking young, dominated by trialists and draft picks, with a paucity of goalscoring options the main concern. The Vancouver press were also unimpressed by a duo of 2-0 friendly defeats by LA Galaxy this week. The matches against the California side, who were without David Beckham, were part of a training camp in Arizona, which has also seen further defeats by Seattle and Chivas USA, as well as victories over Salt Lake and Colombus Crew. Thordarson, however, welcomes the pressure. "I know there are expectations in the city and among the owners but I have very high expectations myself and those are the expectations I primarily deal with," he said. The young players have impressed in the pre-season games, too, particularly winger Russell Teibert.
However, MLS history dictates that new franchises generally perform poorly in their first few seasons, the Seattle Sounders being an anomaly. This, as well as concerns over Thordarson’s squad at this point (the team finished 18th out of 18th in a recent pre-season prediction poll), point to a tough inaugural campaign. One thing for certain, though, is that the fans will let him know if the predictions come to fruition. With a respectable 15,500 season tickets sold, and the opening home match sold-out already, Vancouver seems ready for the return of the Whitecaps. Whether Thordarson’s young crop can emerge from the long shadow cast by the NASL team and win their own place in the hearts of these soccer-starved supporters remains to be seen.
You can buy a retro Whitecaps shirt similar to the one pictured above here.
You can follow Charlie on Twitter @charlieskillen