Overlooking the Whitecaps

The Whitecaps celebrate a Camilo goal. Credit: Jose L. Argueta - ISIPhotos.com

By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 24, 2013) US Soccer Players – Spare a thought for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Since entering MLS in 2011, the most western of Canada’s three clubs has existed in an odd limbo. Not quite the success story of their Cascadia peers, the Timbers and Sounders, the Whitecaps exist in a middle ground partly of their own making but also a function of their “other” status in more than one North American soccer dynamic. Their 40-year history means something, but it’s not exactly clear what.

If the thought you’ve just spared for the Whitecaps (upon request) was the first in some time, you’re close to some understanding of what the Whitecaps are as they head into their fourth Major League Soccer season. Currently in the midst of yet another transition at the head coach position, the Whitecaps remain a supremely unsettled entity.

Never in their MLS existence has the club projected the image of an organization that has a cogent plan. In three seasons, Vancouver went through three different head coaches. Now Former TFCer and Welsh international Carl Robinson, on the job as an assistant with the club since his retirement in January 2012, heads into the breach as the latest man tasked with maximizing the team’s potential.

What exactly is that potential? What is the Whitecaps identity? On so many fronts, Vancouver remains the afterthought in any discussion of the league, their regional rivalries, or even top-level professional Canadian soccer.

One playoff appearance in three seasons is not a bad return for a recent expansion franchise. That one success, which ended in a play-in round exit against the Galaxy in 2012, is sandwiched by a ninth place finish in 2011 and a seventh place finish last season. That’s not enough to place Vancouver among the power brokers in the Western Conference. Despite reasonably strong support and a base of regional relevance from which to work, the Caps do not rate as highly as their expansion mates, the Timbers, or their other Cascadia rivals, the Sounders.

Vancouver’s place within the Cascadia conversation is emblematic of their ineffectual wider profile. The Whitecaps are the “other” team within the triumvirate, the rival both Portland and Seattle are keen to beat as a means to winning the Cascadia Cup, but hardly rating the same level of enmity. By virtue of geography and a shared past in both the original NASL and the modern second division, the Whitecaps are along for the ride in the Pacific Northwest. Ask any non-partisan about rivalry in the region, and they’re sure to mention the Sounders and Timbers first. They might even forget to include the Canadian side altogether.

If the Whitecaps are the third wheel in Cascadia (through no fault of their own), perhaps they can place themselves at the top of the Canadian clubs. Even there, Vancouver comes in behind Toronto and Montreal, two teams from much larger cities in Canada’s more populous eastern reaches. In fact, that Vancouver is in Canada actually shades the perception of their market. In terms of pure population, the metropolitan area of Vancouver comes in between American cities Pittsburgh and Charlotte (neither of which are serious contenders for MLS expansion franchises). It’s hardly the type of market that ensures success. It might even be a handicap to overcome.

Maybe Vancouver is a “regional” team. Canada’s paucity of big cities might make the Whitecaps the team of the western provinces rather than just that of their small corner of British Columbia. If that’s the case, or if there was any thought that Vancouver might benefit from being a regional franchise, how exactly were they to leverage the lack of a nearby Canadian rival?

There’s only moderate competition for the sports entertainment buck in Vancouver. Hockey is king, with the Canucks season overlapping the MLS calendar for three or four months on the front end. The CFL is competition (and stadium-mate) through the final six months. Perhaps the size of Vancouver’s market is mitigated by the notion the Whitecaps can be a big deal in a town with less pro sports competition. Perhaps that notion is wrong when the popularity of those other sports is consider. It’s important to point out that the Whitecaps averaged a near-sellout in 2013, based on the reduced capacity of BC Place for soccer. Averaging 20,000 fans a game does not necessarily mean the club is a major presence in the city or that Vancouver’s base of support is enough to give them any advantage.

Is it unfair to say that the Whitecaps “identity” is almost entirely dependent on Camilo Sanvezzo, the club’s talented MLS Golden Boot winner? Fair or not, Camilo’s stardom is one of the few hallmarks of the team. It’s also telling that despite his goal-scoring title – clearly making him one of the best forwards in the League, even in a strong year for the position – Camilo did not make the MLS Best XI for the season.

Even a Whitecap who put the ball in the net more than anyone else (the very the point of the game, lest we forget) cannot get recognition outside of Vancouver. The Whitecaps are a blip on the map, a point north of Seattle marked off as an MLS town that occasionally shows up on the schedule. They’re a name in the standings, well down from the conference leaders, treading water in shallow pool of mediocrity.

At least Toronto is so bad that they’re a story.

When the Whitecaps chased Bob Bradley to fill the head coach position, it was a an admission that a strong, MLS-savvy head coach was important to establishing the club among the league’s elite. Like LA and Seattle before them, Vancouver saw the need to lean on a proven, respected, commodity after taking a flyer on a young, les s experienced, coach. They made a sizeable offer by most reports.

Bradley’s rejection of their overtures is a problem not just because they missed out on one of the best coaches available, but because there was no other candidate of his quality. Carl Robinson might ultimately be successful as the Whitecaps boss, but there’s no reason to be confident he will at this point in the process. Once again, the Whitecaps – because they lack identity, because they suffer from a deficit of profile, because they exist in the nether region between the small clubs and big clubs in MLS – finds themselves settling instead of dictating.

Spare a thought for the Vancouver Whitecaps, the boring, average, moderately affluent, almost forgettable, and entirely nondescript neighbor of Major League Soccer. Spare a thought for the Vancouver Whitecaps, because they (might?) deserve it.

Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the co-host of The Best Soccer Show. Contact him: matchfitusa@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.

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23 Responses to Overlooking the Whitecaps

  1. David says:

    Hmmm, as a massive Whitecaps fan, who has never lived in the city of Vancouver, this seems strangely ambiguous

  2. Jim says:

    This article is way too critical of the Whitecaps, who have a devoted fan base, at least 3 supporters groups that I know of, and are only an afterthought in the author’s mind, certainly not in the minds of soccer fans inthe Pacific Northwest.
    They are the Cascadia Cup champions this year, after all, and they have a bevy of young talent like Kekuta Manneh, Darren Mattocks and Russell Teibert as well as a number of good prospects in their system.
    Further, they have consistently outperformed Toronto FC in MLS, and nearly matched the performance of Montreal Impact this year.
    As for the Golden Boot winner Camillo’s not making the MLS Best XI, perhaps you should question the voting rather than the player ! I know most people in Vancouver did.

  3. JohnBrown says:

    I’m a Texas resident that is a fan of Vancouver for some reason. Maybe it’s the style they were playing last year and the young players they have. This article is misleading.

    • JohnBrown says:

      Lmao I guess I sort of overlooked that last paragraph. I’ll deflect blame and say that it was too easy to overlook ha!

  4. Mat says:

    Ok. Generally I will just read articles on MLS and the ones they link out and never respond in the comment section, but having read this bashing of the whitecaps and being a major fan who lives in the interior of BC, I must say that this article seems to add nothing to news about the MLS, nor the Whitecaps and appears to be a piece based solely on the biased thoughts of the author. Granted I am biased towards the Whitecaps, but wow! This author has a hard on for trashing Vancouver something fierce. This article is by no means news, and serves as nothing other than trying to muddy the image of the Whitecaps. To the author, keep your thoughts to yourself and write something worth reading. If your blog/news page was entitled ihatevancouverwhitecaps.com then I am sorry. Report on a legitamate problem in the league such as CUSA, and save your biased thoughts for your pub buddies.

  5. Derek says:

    Is it really lost on some of you Vancouver fans that this might be how a lot of us in the rest of MLS see you? Jason didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. He has a successful podcast and talks to a lot of people in the league. I know it probably stings that you’re the Columbus Crew of the modern MLS era, but maybe that should motivate your front office to do something about that rather than letting us know how cool you guys are. And honestly, ‘I don’t normally read opinion columns, but’ might be the nerdiest response to an opinion you don’t like.

    • JOhn says:

      Sure,.. Americans south of the border may not think much about the Whitecaps,.. but in England most football knowledgeable people will mention the Whitecaps when asked about footy in North America. They wont mention the Columbus Crew or FC Dallas. Thats a fact.

  6. JB says:

    “I don’t normally read opinion columns, but… what? Someone thinks Vancouver isn’t wonderful? How… why… and on Christmas Eve…”

  7. Samuel says:

    The author tries to belittle the significance of fan base (in numbers and foot ball savvy), the 40-year and their Cascadia history of the whitecaps. The Whitecaps have all the necessary elements of a successful football club. Of course the whitecaps haven’t won the cup yet but that doesn’t mean they are worse than most of the clubs in MLS. Since they joined MLS, they have attendance numbers in the top 3 or 4 of all MLS clubs, they are the most entertaining sports outfit in Vancouver (yes, including the Canucks), they have passionate fan base and supports club that is not matched by any in the eastern teams and most western MLS teams (including Timbers, Earthquakes, Dallas, etc.). If the Whitecaps are an afterthought in some eastern corners of the US it is because they choose to do so. At the end of the day, the Whitecaps are here because they add significant value to MLS than, say, 80% of the MLS teams right now. And, they are adored by their fans and respected by their regional adversaries. The article is full of ignorance and arrogance.

  8. Bodo Pechbecher says:

    Wow. I had no idea the ‘Caps were so ill/un-considered. Makes one take pause.

    I suppose from afar the team could look like one without identity, without an established star, lacking in profile etc. but up close there seems so much, albeit much of it borne of frustration. I mean, most comments on MLS.com point to what an exciting brand of soccer they play (when the coach allows – there’s that identity thing again), how much young talent they have, how they stomped on Seattle this year and won the Cascadia Cup, Camilo’s stunning goals or perceived flopping, how freaking close they came to finally re-gaining the Voyageurs Cup (there’s that coaching/identity thin once more!).

    I don’t see lots of “Who cares?” when it comes to Vancouver but then again, not pages of input like you might get for the slightest mis-manouever from Seattle or epic tie involving the Timbers. That’s the internet for you. National or regional bias? I’m pretty sure fans in Montreal and Toronto know who the ‘Caps are. There is some history there. You could look it up.

    I guess the front office has a job to do, raising the profile bar for those outside of Cascadia, but within I’ve never felt anything like the disdain I hear coming from the author.

    Hopefully a decade or more of winning will help the profile. Until then, spare them your pity/disdain/superiority/ambiguity. It makes for an underwhelming and flaccid sort of journalism, leaving the reader wondering just why they wasted precious time over… nothing? At least Seinfeld had the good sense to be funny.

  9. Trey says:

    It’s funny that two of the comments seem to get the point – Vancouver isn’t doing enough to put them in the bigger conversation – then end by slamming the author. Ok, but you got the point. Isn’t that the point?

    • Bodo Pechbecher says:

      I don’t know the author well (at all) but if that was his point he should never have tried to make it. A well written article on any subject is a well written article. This is either a poorly written, lazy one, offering no insight or even an attempt to probe the heart of the matter or an overly ambitious one that he hasn’t developed in any meaningful way. He muses on factoids of little gravity that serve no purpose to drive the article forward. He flops around in shallow water making little splashy noises. He uses up hundreds of words on a thesis (Whitecaps are “meh”?) that is really just an ill-informed, nebulous opinion, partly about the opinions of unnamed others. And I’m supposed to give that opinion privilege? I mean, if he bothered to look into the history, rivalries, micro- and macro economics of small and large market teams (of which there are many all over the world), the cross-border issues, the structure of MLS and still all he could come up with is “Whitecaps are meh” then I just don’t have time for that kind of writing. If “Whitecaps are meh” is your thesis then write something else!

      The fact that I’m a passionate fan of the team is a side issue.

      As far as putting them into the “bigger conversation” (whatever that is), this is a professional sports team. It exists to win. Winning is the only conversation I’m interested in. Whatever else is said is just “meh” to me.

  10. K G says:

    Dear Verbose One….

    You Opined that: Bradley’s rejection of their overtures is a problem not just because they missed out on one of the best coaches available, but because there was no other candidate of his quality.

    So you knew who all the Candidates were?
    ‘Best Coach Available’ managed to mis-guide his Egyptian out of World Cup Qualification …

    No one else of his quality? How about Stepehn Constantine of FIFA’s elite Coaching staff now coaching in Greece…? He applied and was never called..

    Your errors qualify you as WhiteCap Staff.. misinformed!

  11. RLE says:

    Much of this is true, but is due mainly to American ignorance about nearly anything that exists outside the borders of the USA. Given that few Americans can identify their state capital or locate it on a map, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the story.

    • Trey says:

      If MLS Becomes a league of haves and have nots, Vancouver isn’t making it any easier on themselves.

      • Bodo Pechbecher says:

        Tell us what they should do, Trey.

        Like many, I feel like ignorance of the ‘Caps is less a fault of the team and more the fault of the ignorant but it is a situation (I guess). They’re well bankrolled, have a stellar academy, passionate and loyal fans with a 40+ year history, multiple championships at various levels, play in a state of the art 50,000+ seat stadium (albeit with turf that shows poorly on TV) and in three years have turned into one of the three or four top-scoring teams in the league – they’re just not American is all I can see. In a salary cap league where they are ready to spend dollar for dollar with all but the biggest two or three I like their chances of success.

        But that’s from inside Vancouver and the problem, if it exists, is out there, wherever you are. So what is needed to correct it? Put yourself in the ‘Caps front office and make some decisions for us.

  12. AllRonD says:

    I reached this website through a supporters discussion anguishing over what others think about the Caps. I’m kind of disappointed in what I just read.

    Why should anyone outside Whitecaps supporters, the Vancouver media, or fans care about a team in Vancouver? This is a good question. Honestly, I don’t anyone should really care. I do think, however, that if you are journalist, or blogger, and you are going to talk about the why the club is so uninspiring, then maybe you could talk about things that can be critiqued. You could have written about how the president of the club, Bob Lenarduzzi, is about as dry as Melba toast in the Sahara Desert. You could have written about the failure of the staff in the club making themselves available to non-Vancouver media. You written about the play on the field, the squad, or anything else that is concrete enough to analyze. But you didn’t. You just wrote stuff.

  13. Darren S says:

    Why should anyone outside Whitecaps supporters, the Vancouver media, or fans care about a team in Vancouver?

    I’m not sure where to go with that one. This is after all a single-entity league. Even the other leagues have to worry about what happens in individual markets. It’s why your basketball team plays in Memphis.

  14. Alex Ferguson says:

    When it comes to North America, Vancouver has often had this problem of being sort of out of sight out of mind. It’s a small to medium sized city that is geographically removed from the larger centers. It’s had similar issue when it comes to the arts and to trade. On the other hand it doesn’t have the same identity problems any more within Canada, and I don’t think it has this identity problem from a Seattle perspective. I’ve been at the games packed out with travelling from supporters from Washington State. It isn’t surprising that Vancouver doesn’t register with many American sports fans. For many Americans the world stops at its borders (apologies to those many other Americans who have a broader perspective than that). What is surprising is how dismissive this author is of the support the team has in the city and the financial clout it has in the league. The author blows off the average attendance of 20,000 fans per game. That’s very high in MLS. It’s very high by hockey and basketball standards. It’s very high by CFL standards. Identity issues? Yes, I guess there are some, but we identify with our players and always have – Hassli, Chiumiento, Jay Demerit, Young Pyo Lee, Camillo, etc., much loved figures. Identity: Come to Vancouver on game day, or any day of the week and you will see the support. This team has a major presence in the city. Finally, the league needs Vancouver – it is a success story in MLS. Just check the league’s cash register. And Vancouver only narrowly missed the playoffs in an super-tight race last year. You remember how tight it was, right? There are some interesting points made in this article. It’s a shame the article isn’t more informed in general. On the other hand it has all of us all talking, I guess. But take the article to a higher level and we can all take part in a more insightful conversation.

  15. Jeff says:

    I don’t read anything in the original article that’s about hurting Vancouver fans feelings. It doesn’t matter for this article what happens within Vancouver and the local market. It’s how the rest of the league sees it from the outside. So why do you need the pat on the back for attendance, the players you like, the supporters’ culture, etc? That’s not the point of this one. Look, I’m as sick of every third article about MLS letting me know lots of people go to games in Seattle, but that’s how the rest of MLS sees them. With Vancouver, it’s more of a shrug. What I don’t understand is that a lot of the comments agree with that, and then attack the writer. What did he do to you?

  16. Seathanaich says:

    It’s hardly surprising that Whitecaps FC isn’t high-profile for most MLS fans, since it’s not in the US, and Americans are the most ignorant nation in the First World about anything beyond their own borders.

    It’s also of no concern. I don’t have any interest in Columbus Crew, Houston Dynamo, or DC United, because they are from places I have never been to and for which I have little or no interest. I’d expect the same to be true for people there about my team, and my province. I’m interested in them because they’ve been my local pro soccer club since the 70s, not because of the league they’re in (and they’ve now been in several).

    The only places VWFC “matters” is to our Canadian rivals and to our nearest American rivals (Seattle, Portland, and to a lesser extent the California teams). Beyond that we’re just another distant visiting team. No problem.

    I’d be hard pressed to know about what happens for, say NE Revolution in their local community and media, so it’s hardly a surprise this writer doesn’t know things like how the Southsiders supporters group has becoming a talking point among local NHL fans, etc.

  17. Soro says:

    Many of the issues outlined here are issues of the league in general. How many people really know or think that much about any team outside of their local market? Outside of LA and Seattle do any MLS teams really have much of a footprint on a more than local scale? How many players in the league are much more than third tier local celebrities? I would say that in the local market the caps are quite prominent, on par with the cfl team that has been around for eons.

    As for the team,they have certainly made some missteps, but the results on the pitch have not been a disaster. Generally, they have played some exciting soccer and they are bringing some exciting young players along. Nothing unusual there other than the coaching carousel. Ownership is solid -very wealthy guys who have a passion for soccer. This is not a corporate team (like tfc) or a team that is an after thought (like a bit a third of Mls teams). The caps have one of the most lucrative shirt sponsors in the league and a solid season ticket base of 15k which certainly would be the envy of most teams in the league.

    As for the market, it is a bit disingenuous to look a population alone, although Vancouver is a bigger market than many in the league (Portland, Columbus, salt lake, San Jose, KC, etc.). It is also the second largest media market in the country (Montreal, being largely french speaking is seen as a less important market). The caps have a deal which means all of their games will be shown nationally on the equivalent of Espn and their highlights always show up on sportscentre. As mentioned above, the caps have excellent national sponsors (not from some ponzi scheme like some mls teams). Vancouver is an affluent, growing, International city and the caps will be a success, irregardless of their place in the perception some.

  18. Another Jason says:

    Many of the issues outlined here are issues of the league in general. How many people really know or think that much about any team outside of their local market? Outside of LA and Seattle do any MLS teams really have much of a footprint on a more than local scale? How many players in the league are much more than third tier local celebrities?

    Really good point.