Vancouver Whitecaps make serious pitch to become Canada’s team

 

Opportunity to ease sting of Honduran horror awaits this city’s soccer squad come Sunday

 
 
 
 
Vancouver Whitecaps fans raise their flags during a Major League Soccer game against Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver on April 19, 2012. The Caps can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with a home victory over fellow Cascadians the Portland Timbers.
 

Vancouver Whitecaps fans raise their flags during a Major League Soccer game against Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver on April 19, 2012. The Caps can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with a home victory over fellow Cascadians the Portland Timbers.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

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VANCOUVER — It’s not easy loving soccer in this country, which at the top level is like one of those destructive one-way relationships you see on television or in the movies.

No matter how much care and emotion you invest, no matter how patient and understanding, no matter how much you think this time it will be different, you always wake up alone and cold and feeling ashamed.

And then the men’s World Cup team loses 8-1 to Honduras and you become unhinged and hunt down soccer so you can boil it in a pot like somebody’s rabbit. Or something like that.

This was a terrible week for soccer in Canada, but it could yet be a good weekend.

Playing in an American-based league and without a Canadian in their lineup, the Vancouver Whitecaps are Canada’s soccer team now.

And that may seem a little sad or ironic. But the Whitecaps offer great hope, too, because if Canada ever rises above its Banana Republic status in international men’s soccer — actually I believe FIFA’s latest rankings show Canada behind the Banana Republic, and by that we mean the employee team from The Gap’s better dressed cousin — it will be because the three Major League Soccer teams in this country have developed and trained players for the national team.

By beating the Portland Timbers Sunday afternoon at BC Place Stadium (4 p.m. Pacific time, OMNI TV, Team 1410), the Whitecaps will become the first Canadian side to make the MLS playoffs.

One small step for soccer …

“I have thought about that a lot,” Whitecaps’ coach Martin Rennie said Friday when asked about the chance for his team to balm, however slightly, the sting from Canada’s World Cup disaster on Tuesday. “I think us getting into the playoffs would be one of the best achievements in Canadian men’s soccer in a long, long time. I do sense that opportunity.

“If you have success, people then want to be a part of it. More young kids want to play for us. More kids even want to be soccer players. I think that could really happen here in a market like this where there is a lot of support for the club and people are interested in soccer. One of the best things as a coach when you have success is to see how it affects other people. That’s what we’re really striving to do.”

In just their second MLS season, the Whitecaps will clinch the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a win against their Pacific Northwest rivals from Portland.

Given that the Whitecaps tied for last overall a year ago and endured a seven-game winless streak that ended only two weeks ago, making the playoffs is significant. It would provide another measure of legitimacy for the Whitecaps, as well as hope for better things ahead for both club and country.

“We have to recognize the opportunity in front of us,” Whitecaps’ captain Jay DeMerit said. “There’s a market and beliefs (about soccer) you can change if you do things like make the playoffs. You start to change people’s minds and their mentality about soccer. I think people were hoping for that in the Canada game, but it went completely the other way.”

DeMerit, a U.S. World Cup veteran, watched the Honduran horror with his fiancee, Canadian Olympic ski hero Ashleigh McIvor. DeMerit is marrying into Canada and, as much as any Whitecap regular, has adopted B.C. as home. He owns a place in Gastown. He feels our soccer pain.

“Sometimes, when you get pulled down so much, it’s hard to get back up there,” DeMerit said. “For us, this is about focusing and making sure we take the opportunity that’s in front of us. And it’s a great one: to be the first team in Canada to make the MLS playoffs. It would be great for this club and great for this community and, especially without hockey around, give people something to believe in.”

Rennie said: “We’re getting to the point where we can actually have a feel-good factor and make a difference. And not just in Vancouver but with Canadian soccer because then other MLS teams will follow on from there.”

At 5-20-7 in their sixth MLS season, Toronto FC is a disaster. The Montreal Impact, 12-15-5, have had a promising debut season in North America’s top league.

Both Rennie and Whitecaps’ president Bob Lenarduzzi, who played on the only Canadian team to make the World Cup (in 1986) and coached the last one to reach the final round of qualifying (in 1997), said it’s vital for the Whitecaps to have Canadian players.

But they must develop them because once the best Canadian players reach Europe, they’re generally too expensive to acquire or fit practically under the MLS’s salary cap. Trying to keep good young Canadians is a better problem to have than trying to get them.

Caleb Clarke of Richmond, Russell Teibert of Niagara Falls, Ont., and Bryce Alderson of Kitchener, Ont., are excellent Whitecap prospects, although none will be on the field Sunday.

Rennie said Canada’s MLS teams should partner the Canadian Soccer Association, but Lenarduzzi calls for something more.

“Whether it was 8-1 or 2-1 this week, if we lost we weren’t going through,” Lenarduzzi said. “Same as it was four years ago. Same it was four years before that.

“All we do is keep changing the coach but we never address the root of the problem. And the two roots of the problem are player development and governance of our game — the CSA board. We haven’t changed what we’re doing. We’ve never stopped to say: ‘We have a problem.’ ”

This week, no one has to say anything. Canadian soccer has a problem. The Whitecaps can help fix it.

imacintyre@vancouversun.com

On Twitter: Twitter.com/imacvansun

vancouversun.com

 
 
 
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Vancouver Whitecaps fans raise their flags during a Major League Soccer game against Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver on April 19, 2012. The Caps can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with a home victory over fellow Cascadians the Portland Timbers.
 

Vancouver Whitecaps fans raise their flags during a Major League Soccer game against Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver on April 19, 2012. The Caps can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with a home victory over fellow Cascadians the Portland Timbers.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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