By J Hutcherson - In 1967, the Vancouver Canadians began playing in the United Soccer Association, a league formed with the blessing of FIFA, and a rival to the upstart National Professional Soccer Association. Within a year, the two rival leagues merged, forming the North American Soccer League and the Vancouver NASL franchise was re-christened the Royals.
The 1968 Royals were notable for one thing, their manager Ferenc Puskas. The Hungarian legend had already captained the first national team to beat England at Wembley and won two European Cups with Real Madrid when he decided to takeover a new club in a new league. As was to be expected in the early days of the NASL, he didn’t have a lot to work with and the club was one of 12 franchises to go under after the 1968 season.
It would be six years before the NASL returned to Vancouver, this time as an expansion franchise called the Whitecaps. Playing home games at the Empire Stadium, the fledgling club slowly grew into one of the best in the league.
Under the management of Tony Waiters, the team reached the playoffs in 1977 and 1978, building a nucleus of players around a strong defense and stabilizing a fan base just in time for the mid-1970’s soccer boom. In fact, it would be during the apex of the league, the 1979 season, that the Whitecaps would do the unthinkable.
Realizing that the incredible momentum professional soccer was enjoying in the late 1970’s was due in large part to the Cosmos, the league had decided to hold the 1979 Soccer Bowl at Giants Stadium. The Cosmos were odds-on favorites to repeat as champions, and home field advantage would guarantee a sellout of partisan New Yorkers for the final. Unfortunately, and something of a trend in the history of the NASL, things didn’t go as planned.
On September 1, 1979 the Whitecaps met the Cosmos at Giants Stadium with a trip to the Soccer Bowl on the line. For the ’79 season, playoff series were two games, home and away, and if after those two games the teams were tied on points, they played a 30-minute mini-game to decide the winner. The Whitecaps won the opening game of the series 2-0 in Vancouver, and at the end of regulation, the second game was tied. New York won the shootout, and the series would be decided by a mini-game.
Both teams had already played a mini-game, needing the tiebreaker to reach the semifinals. New York had won their’s outright, scoring three goals against Tulsa to take the series. Vancouver needed a shootout at the end of the mini-game to get past the LA Aztecs.
So as the two teams collected themselves after already playing for a 120 minutes in 80 degree heat with 65 percent humidity, another 30 minutes would be needed to decide the conference champion.
And what a 30 minutes it was, with both teams having goals disallowed and tempers running as hot as the weather. After 30 minutes, the teams were still tied and the mini-game led to a shootout.
Thirty minutes before, in the first shootout, Vancouver had only managed to get one shot past the Cosmos keeper, but in the next shootout, the Whitecaps luck changed. Bob Bolitho missed with Vancouver’s second attempt, but then Beckenbauer missed for the Cosmos. Both teams scored in the third round, and Vancouver scored in the fourth while the Cosmos’ Ricky Davis missed. The pressure was on Vancouver’s Alan Ball to win it with their fifth shot, but he missed as well.
So with Vancouver leading the shootout 3-2, the Cosmos needed Nelsi Morais to score and send the shootout to a sixth round. Morais didn’t get his shot off in time, and Vancouver would face the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 1979 Soccer Bowl a week later in the same stadium.
The Soccer Bowl was a sellout, with 66,800 tickets snapped up mostly by Cosmos fans expecting to see their club repeat as league champions. Over 16,000 people decided they had something better to do than spend the afternoon of September 8th with the club that had knocked out the Cosmos, and the actual attendance was announced as 50,699.
Whitecaps keeper Phil Parkes proved the difference in the final, stopping two sure goals form the foot of the Rowdies’ Rodney Marsh. Vancouver forward Trevor Whymark scored twice, and that was enough as the Whitecaps won the 1979 Soccer Bowl 2-1 and the Whitecaps flew home to Vancouver the next day as champions.
Back in Vancouver, the Whitecaps radio affiliate, CJOR, decided to promote a small parade. With only a few hours to prepare, the station and the city hired a band, designated a street corner for the fans to gather, and arranged for some open cars to carry the team from the airport. The radio station began to make on-air announcements about the parade, and a crowd of a couple thousand supporters were expected to welcome the team.
Fortunately, and something of a trend in the history of the NASL, things didn’t always go as planned.
At least 200,000 people lined the parade route to welcome the Whitecaps home that Sunday.
Though they never matched the success of their 1979 Soccer Bowl season, for the next six years the club enjoyed strong support from the people of Vancouver. Even after averaging almost 30,000 fans per game in 1983, the club found itself facing the same economic realities as the rest of the league, and by June of 1984 the franchise was on life support.
The city of Vancouver sponsored a “Rally-Round-the-Whitecaps” campaign, but it fell several thousand dollars short of the money necessary to keep the franchise afloat. With the team on the verge of bankruptcy, majority owner Bob Carter gave $1.6 million to his failing club “for the good of the community.”
The Whitecaps almost pulled off another miracle during the 1984 season, losing 4-3 to Chicago in the league semifinals. That game, before 10,139 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, would be the last NASL game the Whitecaps ever played. Their owner would later use his charitable donation as an example of his civic spirit while facing charges for “gross indecency” with two teenage prostitutes.
Yet 16 years after the collapse of the league and the club, the Whitecaps live again. The A-League Vancouver 86ers changed their name to the Whitecaps, forming a group of A-League teams in the Pacific Northwest that have taken the names of their cities’ NASL clubs. Though the A-League is a far cry from the NASL circa 1979, the Whitecaps and their affect on the city of Vancouver is well worth remembering.