Jay DeMerit epitomizes the new era of a tradition that began in 1974 when the Vancouver Whitecaps captured the heart of a city.
That tradition included a North American Soccer League Soccer Bowl victory in 1979, defeating Pele’s New York Cosmos in the semis and the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the finals. They became the city’s first professional sports team to win a major North American championship. More than 100,000 people lined Robson Street in downtown Vancouver to celebrate — probably the club’s finest moment.
That tradition included 60,342 fans filling the brand new BC Place in June 1983 to witness a 2-1 victory over– you guessed it — the Seattle Sounders. This tradition included an average attendance of 32,000 during the peak of the NASL glory years. And most importantly, this tradition included a type of team that mixed skilled players with characters and hard-working role players.
“We were a lunch-bucket team,” said Bob Lenarduzzi, president of the Whitecaps, who has been involved with the club since the beginning — first as a player and then later as a coach, manager and front-office administrator. “We had guys who could muck it up, who were very skillful, and we had guys who could produce a game-changing moment.”
One such star player was Alan Ball, who as a young midfielder had helped England capture its only World Cup. Ball still possessed the skills when he joined the Whitecaps, Lenarduzzi said, recalling the moments when Ball would thread sublime passes to his teammates that carved open the opposition.
Another fan favorite was Willi Johnston, a former Scottish National team player, who began his career at the famed Glasgow Rangers. A speedy left winger, Johnston also was known to offer “other” kinds of entertainment while on the pitch. With the Whitecaps, he once mooned the opposing bench after he had scored a goal.
In a game at Spartan Stadium against San Jose Earthquakes, Johnston was about to take a corner kick when he noticed a fan with a can of Budweiser. He motioned the fan over, took a swig of beer, handed the can back to the fan, then fired a cross to a teammate for a score.
“Those were great memories,” Lenarduzzi said, indicating that the MLS Whitecaps will be assembled with the same mix of players. “We need the workman-like aspect. We need the character players and we need the game-changing player — all of which enable the crowd to connect with the players and the team.”
As the Whitecaps begin to assemble their squad for the 2011 season, they have already found the soul of their team. He is DeMerit — the U.S. National Team central defender who rose from the lowest ranks of semi-pro soccer in England to play in the Premier League for the Watford Hornets.
DeMerit, 31, had been overlooked by MLS teams when he graduated from a small Midwest college eight years ago and decided to try his luck in England. The rest is now history. Living in a friend’s attic, he started with a non-league team in the 13th division, getting paid $40 a match.
An athletic and physical player who excelled in the air, DeMerit thrived in the English game. He climbed the lower leagues until a scout at Watford — an English second-division club (known also as the Championship division) offered him a tryout. He made the squad.
“I knew the struggle would come with it,” DeMerit recalled recently in a radio interview. “The struggle is sometimes half the fun. I knew my skills were raw and I had a lot to learn. I always had the idea that it would work out.”
DeMerit scored the winning goal in the Championship League playoffs against Leeds United that sent Watford to the Premiership. At the same time, DeMerit started getting calls to the U.S. National Team, where he started in the Confederations Cup in the huge upset victory over Spain, and he played all four matches in the World Cup in South Africa. One of his best quotes, which has been circulating on Twitter: “If Im not bleeding at the end of the game, then I havent done my job.”
The Whitecaps went after DeMerit, who was out of a contract in England but had some European options. “He embodies exactly what were looking for,” Lenarduzzi said. “It requires a great deal of character to climb from the lowest rungs and get to the top. He understands the value of teamwork. He’s the Rocky Balboa of soccer.”
The Whitecaps have signed just 11 players. They picked up veteran MLS keeper Joe Cannon, 35, whom Lenarduzzi said demonstrates a “great deal of leadership and character.” The ‘Caps already have a superb young goalie in Jay Knolly, who is expected to compete for the starting position. “Ideally, this should be a good tandem, and Jay can benefit from the veteran,” Lenarduzzi said.
In the MLS Expansion Draft, the ‘Caps picked up MLS veteran Atiba Harris, an athletic wide midfielder who started for FC Dallas and who can play forward. Shea Salinas, another wide midfielder, came from the Philadelphia Union.
Vancouver obtained former Chicago Fire midfielder John Thorrington, a central midfielder through the expansion draft. The South African native initially plied his trade in the lower divisions of the English professional leagues– most notably at Huddersfield Town FC and Grimbsy Town FC. Thorrington represents similar leadership qualities to DeMerit and Cannon and could be a key leader in the center of the field.
Part of the Whitecaps tradition has been to carry this decades-old soccer culture into the new century. Even before receiving an MLS franchise, the Whitecaps have been building a European club model– one that has focused on developing young professional players at no cost to the players. The Whitecaps FC Residency Program offers schooling, boarding and professional soccer development for those young, elite players who have a shot at the pros.
Perhaps the biggest name to emerge from this group is Phillipe Davies, a French Canadian who graduated from the residency program. Last year, he played the majority of games for the USL-1 team on the right side of the midfield, Lenarduzzi said, who sees enormous upside potential for this young player.
How will this all manifest on the pitch? That responsibility belongs to head coach Teitur Thordarson, an Icelandic native, former national team player and striker for first-division clubs in Sweden and Racing Club de Lens, in France’s League 1. His coaching resume includes stints in France, Norway, Sweden and as national team coach for Estonia. He joined the Whitecaps in 2008, where he helped guide the USL-1 team to a league championship in his first season as coach.
Vancouver supporters, so far, have been backing Thordarson since his arrival three years ago. As part of this club tradition, the ‘Caps offered Thordarson the MLS head coaching job when it moved up. The supporters tend to like his team’s style of play.
“We’ve seen a common theme that I’m sure will manifest again in the MLS squad: guts and speed on the backline, and sharp minds in the middle,” said John Knox, a spokesman for the Vancouver Southsiders, the club’s biggest supporter group. “Teitur (Thordarson) builds his teams starting from the back, and that’s why we made two championship finals in three years under his watch.”
Lenarduzzi said he intends to give Thordarson all the tools he needs to be successful in this inaugural year. The ‘Caps will consider a Designated Player, he said, but not before a core squad is established first. “We would definitely entertain a designated player,” he said. “He could be an older, experienced player who fits in our system, or he could be a younger player with huge upside.”
For Lenarduzzi, the first kick against FC Toronto in March will take on a significance well beyond the game. It will symbolize the continuation of a Whitecaps traditions that kept the club together during the ’80s, ’90s and into the new century, even when the outlook for professional soccer looked bleak.
Now, to continue the Cascadia Cup rivalry against Seattle and Portland as well as Canadian rival FC Toronto — all competing in the MLS– is a surreal, unbelievable feeling, he said.
“I thought I had seen the best of professional soccer in this country and I was ok with it,” Lenarduzzi said. “Now, I feel like I’ve gotten a second chance. It’s unbelievably meaningful.”