For something so utterly meaningless, there sure has been a lot of speculation about the Vancouver Whitecaps' home opener.
Let's face it, we could play FC Dallas at 6:51 PM on a Monday night and it would still be an occasion. You only get one Major League Soccer debut, and even if the Whitecaps will be doing it with an expansion squad at a temporary stadium on artificial turf they share with a Canadian football team, it's still an experience. There was plenty of buzz twenty-seven years ago, when the Whitecaps opened up a brand new BC Place Stadium with a derby match against the Seattle Sounders in the old North American Soccer League. Now, once again, we have a new stadium to ring in, and this time a new league to go with it.
We might just have the Seattle Sounders too.
Seattle-based Spanish language soccer blog FútbolenSeattle claimed on Twitter that the Major League Soccer season will kick off March 19, 2011, when the Whitecaps host the Sounders at Empire Field. They cite ESPN as their source, but I can't find it on their website and none of the Seattleites I spoke to knew anything about it. I suppose it could have been ESPN Deportes. I certainly wouldn't know if it was. The point I'm trying to make is that this is a rumour, not a certainty. It's a rumour from a blog with Seattle connections, and it's a rumour which on a couple levels makes sense.
More importantly, it's a fun rumour to talk about. Who will be the Vancouver Whitecaps' first opponent of 2011?
The old rumour had been that the Whitecaps' 2011 season would kick off on the traditional MLS First Kick on Thursday, March 17 against the New York Red Bulls. Thursdays have been the usual day for First Kick since forever, because that's when ESPN is willing to put an MLS game on prime-time television. This rumour had our expansion buddies the Portland Timbers waiting until Saturday for their first match, when they'd host the Los Angeles Galaxy. These reports, seemingly disadvantageous to Portland, actually came from the Timbers Army, where it was allegedly mentioned by a handler of Don Garber's at a question-and-answer session with the supporters. Moreover, introducing the league's two newest teams with home games against Major League Soccer's marquee teams made a lot of intuitive sense, at least to those of us who consider Portland and Vancouver the most important parts of the league. On the other hand, the information was obviously nothing rock solid, and as this came back in October there was certainly plenty of time for the parties involved to change their minds.
The key disadvantage of such a schedule was that putting one of the league's most important televised games at Empire Field seemed like a bad idea. Empire Field may be a very, very good temporary stadium, but it is a temporary stadium. It's using old artifical turf, the amenities aren't fantastic, and it looks like what it is: a structure meant to last through 2010, through most of 2011, and then be torn down before it falls down. Every year at First Kick, there are thousands of Americans getting their first real look at Major League Soccer on ESPN. Empire Field isn't nearly as impressive a venue as the new Kansas City stadium or probably even the refurbished PGE Park in Portland.
By hosting the Seattle Sounders and getting the Cascadia Cup started, Major League Soccer can still ensure that Vancouver's home opener will mean more than the average game. It's still a matchup that will generate plenty of excitement for both casual fans and hard-core supporters, beyond the obvious "it's our first game in Major League Soccer" factor. There's a school of thought that says this isn't necessary. The home opener would be a huge event no matter who it took place against, and the first game against Seattle would be equally enormous regardless of when it the season it game. Combining the two could be seen as "wasting" a rivalry game: a potentially season-defining matchup further down the road being used at the earliest possible moment. Moreover, the home opener is going to feature a stiff logistical learning curve in the first place: adding an army of Seattle away supporters to the mix could make preparations for the Whitecaps very difficult. The last thing we need is to look like overwhelmed amateurs on the national stage.
We have to remember, though, that the home opener isn't just for those of us who'll be in the stadium. There'll hopefully be television coverage in Canada, and possibly even in the United States. Even if there's relatively little media coverage, the eyes of the Canadian soccer world will be upon Vancouver at that moment. Playing the likes of the Houston Dynamo might not make a difference to us in the stands, who'd be whoopin' and hollerin' and carrying on regardless of the opposition, but it could make a big difference to casual fans at home and distant observers. The more excitement, the more energy that surrounds the home opener even outside the stadium, the better it is for the Whitecaps and for Major League Soccer.That's why the New York Red Bulls rumour was so appealing. An opportunity to see a major team with recognizable stars, a chance to boo Thierry Henry and his magic hands, and most excitingly of all the real possibility that we could teach a team full of big names and designated players a lesson the whole league would have to remember. There'd be something to draw in everybody's attention. A game against the Sounders, well-known for their on-pitch success as well as our hated rivals, would be even more exciting. Riskier, perhaps, but worth it.
I do hope it's Seattle. I'd be excited to see anyone but I dearly hope we take on Seattle. I can't think of a better introduction to this wild and woolly league.