Whitecaps-TFC clash to open MLS season

The Vancouver Whitecaps will make their MLS regular season debut against Canadian rival Toronto FC on March 19 at Empire Field.

Having Toronto FC come to town for the Vancouver Whitecaps debut match is the perfect recipe for the team to kick off its inaugural Major League Soccer season, says team president Bob Lenarduzzi.

"It's a fantastic thing," a beaming Lenarduzzi said Monday. "It just has all the right ingredients."

The Whitecaps and Toronto will play the first MLS match between Canadian teams on March 19 at Empire Field, the league announced.

"There is already a rivalry between the two cities," said Lenarduzzi. "Take away professional sports, there's always a competition."

The 2011 MLS season will open March 15 with the Seattle Sounders hosting the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Toronto will play its home opener March 26 against the expansion Portland Timbers. It will be the third consecutive year that Toronto has opened at home against an expansion team.

Last season, Dwayne De Rosario scored twice in a 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Union while in 2009 Seattle defeated Toronto 2-0 at BMO Field.

MLS only released the schedule for the 18 home openers. The entire regular-season schedule will be announced in early February.

The Whitecaps, who last year played in the U.S. Soccer Federation Division Two, have some history with Toronto FC. For the last several years the clubs have faced each other in the Nutrilite Canadian Championships, a three-team, round-robin tournament.

Back in 2009 the Whitecaps thought they had wrapped up the Nutrilite title when they defeated Toronto 2-0 in Vancouver. Toronto went into the tournament's final game needing to beat the Montreal Impact by four goals.

With Montreal resting most of its starters, Toronto trounced the Impact 6-1 as Whitecaps players looked on in disbelief.

"We've had Nutrilite games against them," said Lenarduzzi. "We've seen they had fans that travel out here.

"We've seen there is a rivalry developing there."

Lenarduzzi wasn't going to quibble over Vancouver's first opponent, even though the Whitecaps have more established historical rivalries against teams like Seattle and Portland.

"Those are going to be special games as well," he said. "There are plenty of games that could have been good home openers.

"The idea of it being the first time we are going to play against each other [in MLS], and having that be our home opener, I think that supersedes the other benefits you would get from playing against your Northwest rivals. It's a balanced schedule. We are going to see everybody."

Playing their first MLS game at home will be a huge boost to the Whitecaps marketing. Demand for season tickets is already approaching the 16,500 cap set by the team.

"What we'd like to do is generate a momentum in the build-up to the first game," said Lenarduzzi.

The Whitecaps will start the season at Empire Field, a 27,500-seat temporary facility located on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in East Vancouver. They will move to B.C. Place Stadium in downtown Vancouver once the $565 million in renovations are completed on the building.

Playing outdoors could be a challenge in March. The temperatures may be cool and there's always a chance of rain.

Lenarduzzi said the Whitecaps played outdoors in March when the team was part of the old North American Soccer League.

"One of the most memorable games at Empire was against the New York Cosmos and it was belting down rain," he said with a laugh. "But the place was jammed pack.

"One of the benefits to our crowd will be rain capes, just in case."

The Whitecaps still have plenty of work left before March. So far the team has 11 players under contract with "more in the pipeline," said Lenarduzzi.

The club plans a "very extensive" training camp, which will probably be held in Arizona.

To help make the first game special, the Whitecaps will not play any exhibition games in B.C., Lenarduzzi said.