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Vancouver Whitecaps' head coach Teitur Thordarson looks on during the MLS soccer team's practice in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday March 10, 2011. The Whitecaps are one of two expansion teams joining Major League Soccer for the 2011 season and play their first game March 19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

It's a job Teitur Thordarson never imagined for himself.

The man who will guide the Vancouver Whitecaps into their inaugural season of Major League Soccer became a coach more by accident than design.

"When I was playing I never thought of being a coach," Thordarson said after a recent Whitecaps practice. "I'm a little surprised the way it came about."

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A twist of fate put Thordarson (pronounced TOR-dar-SUN) on the path that would lead him to Vancouver. It was near the end of his playing career when he was offered the job of coaching a youth team in France for three months. The position was vacant because the incumbent coach became ill.

Much to his surprise, Thordarson found he liked coaching. That led to various jobs with European teams.

"If I wouldn't have had that opportunity . . . then most probably I wouldn't have been a coach," he said with a shrug.

Thordarson faces a new challenge when the Whitecaps open their MLS campaign Saturday at Empire Field against Canadian rival Toronto FC. He takes a team with a recent history of success in second-tier leagues into the highest level of North American soccer.

The stakes may be higher, but for Thordarson the job inside the lines remains the same.

"The main difference between MLS and the other leagues I have been in, is in terms of the rules and how the league is run," said the 59-year-old father of two. "On the field, the coaching itself is quite similar.

"We have been working hard over the winter to prepare the team. The guys have really bought into what we want them to do. I feel the team is ready."

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In his three previous seasons in Vancouver Thordarson has guided the Whitecaps to a United Soccer Leagues' championship in 2008, a spot in the final in 2009 and an appearance in the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 semifinals last year.

The predictions for the Whitecaps in MLS have not been kind. Some have picked Vancouver to finish last in the Western Conference. Few think the team will make the playoffs.

"We want to win," said Thordarson. "We also understand we are new in the league and it might take a bit of time to adapt to it.

"We want to be competitive from day one and make sure we are ready for every game played. I must say if we would manage to get into the playoffs that would be something great."

With his handsome, chiseled features and flowing grey hair, Thordarson looks the part of a small-town sheriff in an old western movie, not someone born in Akranes, Iceland.

He speaks six languages fluently and can get by in another three. His presence can be intimidating but he also has a warm smile.

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During practices, Thordarson will sometimes take a player aside to give instructions, placing an arm on his shoulder while speaking.

Midfielder Terry Dunfield describes Thordarson as "an honest coach."

"You know where you stand with him," said Dunfield, a Vancouver native who spent time with Manchester City FC. "He has a style and philosophy that is his own.

"Everything he does is for a reason. He doesn't waste any words or actions or any training sessions. Everything is building toward something."

Structure is important for Thordarson. He likes his teams to play aggressive, physical soccer.

"I'm not a yeller or a screamer," he said. "I want discipline in the group. I want people to work hard."

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Coaches by nature want control. They trust their judgment and believe in their instincts.

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said Thordarson is a coach who knows his limitations when planning the move to MLS.

"He's very open minded," said Lenarduzzi, a former head coach himself with both the Canadian national team and the Vancouver 86ers. "I think he understood that his lack of knowledge would require input from a lot of different areas.

"That's the thing I appreciate about him, his willingness to acknowledge he doesn't know what he doesn't know. He'll stand his ground on certain things, but you can always approach him. That's a wonderful quality to have."

The Whitecaps signed Thordarson to a one-year contract in MLS, with the team holding an option for a second year.

"He would have preferred more but he accepted that it's a new league, there are new challenges," Lenarduzzi said. "We will assess as we go through the process as to what it looks like beyond that."

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The Whitecaps staff is also stocked with former MLS coaches.

Tom Soehn, Vancouver's director of soccer operations, spent three seasons as head coach of D.C. United. Assistant coach Denis Hamlett was a coach with the Chicago Fire.

Thordarson understands steering the Whitecaps in the right direction is his best job security.

"I want to see the team win," he said. "That gives me a satisfaction for the work we have been doing."

Lenarduzzi said Vancouver's first-season success won't be judged on wins alone. One of the Whitecaps goals is to nurture home-grown talent for both the club and the Canadian national team.

"He (Thordarson) has bought into that philosophy," said Lenarduzzi. "If we are going in the right direction in that regard, it just won't come down to results. And it can't.

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"If clubs make decisions simply on the basis of results, I think that's not using all the criteria you have available."

Thordarson's three-month stint as a replacement coach has resulted in a 30-year career. He spent 11 seasons coaching in Norway's top-level Eliteserien. During his tenure as head coach of the Estonia's national team the club rose from No. 145 to 68th in the FIFA world rankings.

It's sometimes been a nomadic existence. He estimates he and wife Asdis Olafsdottir have moved 29 times since 1976.

Thordarson remembers his first meeting with the Whitecaps.

"I got to hear the vision they had," he said. "That was something that really pleased me."

Thordarson is a man used to success. He knows the upcoming season will be a learning curve for management, players and coaches.

"We have to adapt to this league," he said. "Everybody is aware of that.

"It's going to be much tougher. We have been playing well (in exhibitions) but the little mistakes we made cost us a goal. You can not afford to do the mistakes you got away with in the league we were playing in."

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