Q&A: Bob Lenarduzzi

Major League Soccer awarded Vancouver an expansion franchise that will begin play in 2011, and nobody is happier about it than Bob Lenarduzzi.

Whitecaps president welcomes MLS to his hometown

Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi enjoys a laugh during a news conference March 18 where it was announced the city was awarded a Major League Soccer franchise. The team will begin play in 2011. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Top-level soccer returned to Canada's West Coast last week, as Vancouver became the newest home of Major League Soccer.

The league awarded the city an expansion franchise that will begin play in 2011, and nobody is happier about it than Bob Lenarduzzi.

"The reaction in the city and the province has been great," said Lenarduzzi. "I'm really excited about this, and obviously, being from Vancouver, this has special meaning for me."

Lenarduzzi, 53, has a long and well-documented association with soccer in his hometown.

He played close to 300 games between 1974 and 1984 for the original Whitecaps team that was part of the old North American Soccer League, helping the club win the league championship - the Soccer Bowl - in 1979.

After the NASL folded, he joined the Vancouver 86ers of the Canadian Soccer League in 1987 before retiring the following year. He went on to coach the 86ers for five seasons before taking over as manager of Canada's national team.

Lenarduzzi currently serves as president of the Vancouver Whitecaps, who compete in the United Soccer League's First Division, one level below MLS.

The Vancouver club will become the 17th in MLS and the second based in Canada. Toronto FC joined the league in 2007 and has consistently played to sell-out crowds while boasting a season-ticket waiting list numbering in the thousands.

MLS, which opened for business in 1996 as an eight-team operation, expanded to 16 clubs with the addition of a team in Seattle this season and will welcome Philadelphia into the fold next year.

In an interview with CBCSports.ca, Lenarduzzi talked about MLS coming to Vancouver and what benefits it will have for soccer in Canada.

CBCSports.ca: What does the pending arrival of MLS in Vancouver mean to you personally?

Bob Lenarduzzi: It means I don't have to get a real job. [laughs] What I do, you can't say it's a job. For sure, I've had stressful times over the years - with the Whitecaps and coaching the national team and not qualifying for the World Cup and having people second-guess you. Those are difficult things.

The rollercoaster ride that I've been on since I started with the original Whitecaps 35 years ago, with all of the difficulties involved, it just makes this announcement that much sweeter.

It's not very easy to promote soccer in this country, but it does feel as though we've got it back on track again, and now, it's a matter of making sure we do the right things as we prepare to enter into MLS in 2011.

CBCSports.ca: You were competing against three other cities: Ottawa, St. Louis and Portland, Ore. Why do you think MLS decided to grant Vancouver an expansion franchise?

Bob Lenarduzzi: I think we had all of the necessary ingredients. We had the strong ownership group. We have a great history. The fan support that we've had over the years, even dating back to the old NASL days, was phenomenal. All of those things propelled us to the top of the list.

We also stayed the course. From the time that the bidding process began, we really weren't too worried about what the other cities were doing. We always felt that if we focused on our bid and focused on the work that we needed to do, then we would give ourselves the best possible chance of success.

CBCSports.ca: How will the addition of Vancouver to MLS benefit soccer as a whole in Canada?

Bob Lenarduzzi: Although 25 years have passed, there are two things that happened in 1984 that I think will answer your question.

One is, when the Whitecaps and the NASL folded, there were 45,000 registered kids playing the game in Canada. Within two years, that number went down to 27,000, so there's a direct correlation between grass roots soccer and the professional level.

And at the national-team level, it's no coincidence … that we had our best run from 1984 to 1986. We went to the 1984 Olympics and lost to Brazil in the quarter-finals in a shootout, and we qualified for the World Cup two years later, in large part due to the NASL and the fact that players such as myself were able to play with and against very good players.

Now, look at today. Our registration numbers are higher than hockey, so that's only going to get stronger with the addition of another Canadian pro team. Ideally, between ourselves, Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact (of USL-1), we'll be able to provide the national team with a broader base of talent.

CBCSports.ca: How do you see this team fitting into the Vancouver sports community? Is the goal to usurp the B.C. Lions as the No. 2 team in the city behind the Canucks?

Bob Lenarduzzi: Well, I think we need to worry about ourselves and let the public determine where we'll fit in. We want to provide major league entertainment like the Canucks, but we want to be far more affordable and provide family entertainment opportunities.

CBCSports.ca: The Grizzlies of the NBA and the Ravens of the National Lacrosse League failed in Vancouver. Why do you think this team will be any different?

Bob Lenarduzzi: We have a history in this city. Neither of those sports really had any history in Vancouver at the professional level. Lacrosse is very popular at the grassroots level, but that … [has] not really manifested itself at the professional level here in Vancouver.

With the Grizzlies, they clearly had ownership problems, including one owner who didn't hide the fact that he wanted to move the team out of town. That doesn't help to solidify your fan base.

I think one thing we have going for us is the strength of MLS. The league has gone through some growing pains, but when you have some strong ownership groups in the U.S. investing in professional soccer, it's helped the league to grow and gain some solid footing.

I think we're coming into a league that knows that it needn't worry about competing with the NHL, NFL or the NBA. We have to find our place in the professional sports hierarchy, and there's no doubt in my mind that there is a place for professional soccer in this city.

CBCSports.ca: Will the club keep the name Whitecaps?

Bob Lenarduzzi: It's funny, because that's something that's been brought up a few times, mostly because our logo wasn't seen at the official team launch, and it was distinctly absent from all the promotional materials we were putting out there.

We took a page from the Seattle Sounders in that regard, because like us, they had a season in USL before they entered MLS this year. From speaking with them, they told us that you need to differentiate between now and when we're going to be in MLS in 2011, and we have two years of that. Our feeling was that we have to be general in our branding for 2011and only use the name Whitecaps when referring to the current team.

Having said that, if we don't use the name Whitecaps in 2011, I'd be very surprised and extremely disappointed. I think there is a lot of history, good will and tradition that goes with the Whitecaps, so I'm not an advocate for changing the name. But if there's someone out there who thinks it should be something other than Whitecaps, we're interested in hearing from them.

CBCSports.ca: What about the stadium issue? Originally, the Whitecaps wanted to build a new waterfront stadium, but the team announced it will play at B.C. Place after the provincial government stepped in and said it would fit it with a retractable roof as part of an ongoing $365-million renovation to turn the stadium into a soccer-specific venue. Does that mean the waterfront stadium proposal has been shelved?

Bob Lenarduzzi: The plan for a new stadium hasn't been shelved; it's been caught up in bureaucracy so that's up in the air right now. Moving forward, we should be very thankful that B.C. Place will be refurbished because if it wasn't, you and I wouldn't be talking about an MLS team coming to Vancouver right now. B.C. Place in its current form was not an option for us. It's an old and tired building; it's too cavernous for the type of atmosphere we want to generate.

The provincial government stepped in and said they would help fund the refurbishing of the stadium to make it more soccer-friendly. If not for that, we wouldn't have a place to play, and there's no way MLS would have granted us a team.