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.
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