It sounded like it sounded on opening day.
Back then, in March of 2011, it was a heady moment for the Vancouver Whitecaps, the team’s expansion debut, a brilliant one, a 4-2 victory in late-winter afternoon sunshine, and the crowd was electric. It felt like something incredible. And it faded just about as fast.
More than two years later, just past the halfway mark of Vancouver’s third Major League Soccer season, the pulsing potential of that first 90 minutes has been rekindled. After so many miscues, from Mustapha Jarju to Barry Robson, all the grand ambitions imbued in the team, from the owner Greg Kerfoot on down, seem finally to have coalesced.
The sense that revival was truly at hand came two weeks ago, at home against Seattle, a regional rival Vancouver had never been able to beat. The Whitecaps were rolling on a hot streak and a Saturday-night crowd of 22,500 was roused.
And the fulcrum was Kenny Miller, the Scottish international, the eighth-highest paid player in the league at $1.1-million (U.S.). He arrived last year, midseason, but struggled, emblematic of everything that went wrong in 2012. This year, however, Miller has driven his team and against Seattle it was Miller who conjured that delirious excitement that burned too briefly two years back.
Taking a breakaway pass in the fourth minute, deftly handling the long ball, Miller outwitted a defender who sprinted back and then, with soft precision, just outside the goal area, booted the ball with his right foot and tucked it on the turf just inside the far post. The goal propelled Vancouver to a 2-0 victory and, as Miller was substituted in the 90th minute, the crowd stood, a standing ovation.
Things are finally going right for the Whitecaps – and the latest test to assess how real it is comes Saturday in Los Angeles, on the road against the defending two-time champion Galaxy and their stars, such as Robbie Keane. The Whitecaps, and owner Kerfoot, have never had quite the funds as the Galaxy, but have always fancied themselves in a top-tier class. The back-half of this third season, starting with the road game against L.A., is the acid test.
There were senses of it last year. After a dead-last finish in the expansion year, the Whitecaps showed promise in 2012 before fading badly, the likes of Miller, added for oomph, doing nothing. The team still made the playoffs but lost immediately to the Galaxy in L.A. This year began poorly, too, or at least it seemed, but at the start of June, a 2-1 road win in New York, it began to change.
The Whitecaps are now 9-5-5 – good for third in the competitive Western Conference and fourth among all 19 teams in the league.
The difference from the two years past is goals. In both 2011 and 2012, Vancouver managed just 35 goals in 34 games, good for last in 2011 and third-worst in 2012. This year, after 19 games, the team has 32 goals, tied for best in the league, and their 23 at home outstrip all rivals.
Miller has delivered six and his force on the pitch has helped open room for Camilo Sanvezzo, who leads the league with 12. Canadian Russell Teibert on the forward wing has fed in six assists and kicked home two of his own.
Coach Martin Rennie, a 38-year-old Scot, sees the recent run as the result of chances clicking, rather than some complete turnaround from early in the year. Even when the team was losing, Rennie, in his sophomore MLS season, could see the potential.
One fundamental change has been discipline. The Whitecaps were an unruly mess the past two years. In 2011, they committed 451 fouls, the second-most in the league. Last year, it was the most of anyone, 481. This season, the team has the fifth-fewest among 19 teams, just 213 so far.
The organization, for this season, tired of the fouls, and of disgraceful dives, drew up a slogan, an advertising headline but one to encompass the spirit of the club: “Our all. Our honour.” The importance of the push was presented to the players, in a meeting led by the coach, but also the head of marketing, to underscore the extent, team president Bob Lenarduzzi said.
On the pitch, with the recent run, Lenarduzzi said the team is taking hold more firmly across the city. Season tickets have dipped to 13,000, from more than 15,000 the first year. The figure is beginning to tick back up.