May was to be a month to shine solo in the West Coast sporting spotlight for the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Canucks’ hockey season had ended before April was over, and the B.C. Lions weren’t set to kick around footballs until June.
So the soccer team had the chance to seize some of the city’s undivided sporting attention, an important moment for the club since interest in the Whitecaps has waned somewhat. The team’s reputation, and box-office drawing power, is still recovering from its terrible expansion season last year, when they finished dead last.
At the start of May, attendance over the Whitecaps’ first four home games was 18,450, almost 2,000 people less than the average of 20,400 over the whole of last season.
Of those four games early in the 2012 campaign, just one was a sellout, the opening day.
With three weeks gone in May, the Whitecaps have scored, at least somewhat.
If the Major League Soccer playoffs were to start today – the season is roughly at the one-third mark – the Whitecaps would be in, with their five wins, three losses and three draws (compared with 1-5-5 a year ago).
And attendance is picking up.
A sellout of 21,000 on Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders pushed the season’s six-game average above 19,000.
Still, on the pitch, the month has actually been only so-so. And the biggest game of the 31 days for Vancouver now comes on the road, this Wednesday against Toronto FC, with the Canadian championship on the line.
The Whitecaps’ started the Canucks-free May well, with an early win at home against San Jose, a strong team ahead of Vancouver in the MLS standing.
A pummelling loss on the road against New England followed.
Thereafter, Vancouver, back at home, almost blew a major match in the first leg of the Canadian championship against Toronto, nearly losing last Wednesday before salvaging a 1-1 draw on a cracker of an Eric Hassli goal.
On Saturday, Vancouver stumbled again against Seattle, which is also ahead of it in the MLS standing. Hoping to close a five-point gap to two with a win, Vancouver twice blew leads before settling for a disappointing 2-2 draw.
The Whitecaps are happy to be out of last. But they’re not happy. Martin Rennie, the rookie MLS coach who turns 37 on Tuesday, is frustrated with stumbles in the Whitecaps’ push for progress, such as letting victory against Seattle slip away with minutes left in the game as Vancouver’s defensive broke down.
“I want us to be making strides faster than we are,” said Rennie said after the game.
Whether May can be declared a success, or failure, really now all rests on the game in Toronto on Wednesday. Rennie on Saturday showed how important the Whitecaps consider it. Vancouver, against Seattle, started with star scorers Hassli and Camilo Sanvezzo on the sidelines. In the second half, they both subbed in, and Camilo scored, but Rennie took a gamble by leaning on offensive depth against Seattle, giving speedy rookie striker Darren Mattocks his first start, to reserve his best shots for Toronto.
It will be a significant setback if Vancouver cannot overcome Toronto, which extended its record for worst-ever opening to an MLS campaign on Saturday by losing again to fall to 0-9.