Birth of a new era for Whitecaps

When the Vancouver Whitecaps host Toronto FC at Empire Field on Saturday, it will simultaneously mark the end of one era and the start of a new one for soccer in the bustling west coast metropolis.

Vancouver ready to make its MLS debut Saturday

Be sure to check your watches at 3:30 p.m. PT on Saturday, because at that exact moment time will stand still.

When the Vancouver Whitecaps host Toronto FC at Empire Field, it will simultaneously mark the end of one era and the birth of a new one for soccer in the bustling west coast metropolis.

The door on the old Whitecaps, the club that won the hearts of Vancouver sports fans during their glory days in the defunct North American Soccer League, will be officially slammed shut.  Also confined to the history books will be the days the team spent in a number of different leagues, from the CSL to the USL and everything in between, not to mention its incarnation as the Vancouver 86ers.

While bidding a heartfelt adieu to the past, the Whitecaps will also walk down a new pathway, one that leads them directly to Major League Soccer and their return to the sport at the highest level in North America.

For team president Bobby Lenarduzzi, a member of the original Whitecaps squad and a Vancouver sports icon, Saturday will be an emotional event, but one that he feels is the most important milestone in franchise history.

"This game is the culmination of the end of the original Whitecaps era, everything that went on between, and our chance to get back to the top level," Lenarduzzi told

"It’s about paying tribute to the past, but also a matter of starting something new, and making it self-sustainable and moving forward."

It’s fitting that Saturday’s match takes place at Empire Field.

In many ways it is the spiritual home of the Whitecaps, who made the stadium their base from the time they entered MLS in 1974. Sell-out crowds were the norm — not the exception — at the stadium as the Whitecaps became the hottest ticket in town.

A move to BC Place in the early '80s — and later to Swangard — resulted in a less-than-ideal fan experience, as the club was unable to duplicate the same magical atmosphere.

This year, the Whitecaps will begin the season at Empire before eventually moving to a newly refurbished BC Place, a move that will put the team at the centre of the city’s sports hub.

"The ability to start at Empire and be able to revisit the past and the glory days off the '70s and '80s in a place where it all happened is quite nostalgic. We’re ecstatic that we’re able to do that before moving over to the new building in early October," said Lenarduzzi.

The Whitecaps have been slowly building for this moment since being granted an MLS expansion franchise in 2009. From launching an innovative marketing campaign in order to get the message out, to signing players the calibre of American defender Jay DeMerit, the Whitecaps have created quite a buzz in the city of Vancouver, no small feat considering how well the Canucks are doing these days.

But the wait is finally over. Now it’s time to produce on the field. And the players are itching to go.

"We’re all beyond excited to get going. It’s been a long pre-season … but this is it. This is why we’re here and now game time is everything," DeMerit said matter-of-factly after Friday’s team practice.

Teammate Terry Dunfield added: "We’re ready. You could see in training today that the boys were buzzing. We can’t wait and now it’s time to do the talking on the field."

Saturday’s game holds a special meaning for Dunfield, who grew up in Vancouver and was a fan of the club, watching the Whitecaps and 86ers play at the team’s former home, Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, B.C.

Such was his devotion to the team that he went to great lengths to watch them in the playoffs one year when he couldn’t get a ticket.

"I remember being 10-years-old and climbing a tree outside Swangard just so I could watch," Dunfield recalled.

"Now to have this opportunity to make history on the field, to be able to play in the first game of Vancouver’s MLS campaign, it’s fantastic. It’s what dreams are made of."