It’s been more than 38 years since Whitecaps forward Trevor Whymark scored twice in the 1979 Soccer Bowl to earn Vancouver its first major sports title in a decade and a half.
The team was the talk of the town, and players were mobbed by tens of thousands of fans during a victory procession along Robson Street.
“It was a magical time,” said then-Whitecaps player and current team ambassador Carl Valentine.
“We were really taken aback by the parade. It just seemed like the whole city was there to welcome us back.”
It’s a scene the team hopes to see again before long, starting with Wednesday’s opening round playoff game against the San Jose Earthquakes.
“The most important thing is they’ve established an identity,” said Valentine of this year’s Whitecaps. They’re a team that is going to be tough to beat and tough to break down.”
With the B.C. Lions struggling, and the Canucks in rebuilding mode, a long playoff run could help the Whitecaps score new fans, but the team still has a ways to go both on and off the field before the sprit of ’79 returns to Vancouver.
Building the brand
“A Whitecaps game is an experience unlike anything else in the marketplace,” said sports business expert Tom Mayenknecht.
All but three of the Whitecaps 17 home games this year had an attendance of 20,000 fans or more, evidence of an authentic soccer culture that local fans are buying into, according to Mayenknecht.
“It’s resonated especially with discerning millennials and younger fans.”
He says consistent crowds are a sign of the team’s popularity and reflect the team’s strategy it grow its brand from the stadium outwards.
He adds TV presence is another story and Canadian Football League games average nearly five times the viewership of many Major League Soccer matches.
“Until the television numbers shift further, it isn’t appropriate to consider the Whitecaps as the number two show in town,” he said.
But he says winning seasons could shrink that gap.
“They have to continue to grow and build their brand for another few seasons.”
Doing that starts with a playoff win Wednesday night, something fans say is long overdue.
“The immediate goal has to be to win the first playoff game,” said Jorge Mendoza, co-host of the Whitecaps-themed From the Backline podcast. “That is the next step.”
To do that the team will have to battle a run of poor form as well as its own checkered playoff history.
The team won once in its final five regular season games, scoring three goals in over seven and a half hours of soccer. They also missed three opportunities to clinch first place and first round bye in the playoffs.
“Five seasons ago a third place finish would’ve been great,” he said. “But given the last few weeks … [it] is a bit of a disappointment.”
Historically, the playoffs haven’t been a friendly place for the Whitecaps. The club has made the post-season three times since joining the MLS in 2011, most recently in 2015, but have lost all four games and never progressed beyond the conference semifinal round.
But Mendoza says the team has a young, talented core of players that will keep the team in contention for years to come, including goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic, Canadian teen midfielder Alphonso Davies and forward Yordy Reyna.
“I think it’s just starting,” he said of the team’s window to win.
“With a couple of seasons under their belt, [they] will be a force to be reckoned with.”