I'd love to play the big, boisterous, confident Vancouver Whitecaps supporter right now. But the truth is that, with one day to go until the team kicks off in Major League Soccer, I'm nervous.
Oh, not nervous about the game. Toronto FC is going to be a stroll through the daisies. I'm not convinced they'd get even odds in a game against the Toronto Lynx at this stage. Notwithstanding the widely accepted truth that Aron Winter is a soccer genius who will bring TOTAL FOOTBALL to Canada because he's Dutch, their team is weaker than last season at every position except goal. And last year's team, you may recall, wasn't exactly the Red Army.
I'm nervous about the season. I'm nervous about the league. I'm nervous about the team. Frankly, I'm even a little nervous about the fans. Being Canadians, many Whitecaps fans are happy to leap into automatically comparing the Whitecaps to various rivals; we have more paid supporters in the Southsiders than the Emerald City Supporters had when Seattke kicked off in MLS, we've sold more season tickets than the Portland Timbers, we've out-drawn and out-performed Toronto almost every season both of our soccer teams were in the same league... I hope you don't need me to tell you how fatuous such comparisons are.
Maybe it's because I wasn't born in British Columbia, but I still don't think of Vancouver as a major soccer city (not to be confused with being a Major League Soccer city, where they have Columbus dead to rights). There's buzz, but outside of the usual suspects there's not much excitement. There's hope, but not enthusiasm. There's curiousity, but not dedication. That will all come with time. Hopefully.
Yes, I am just a little nervous about all this.
Obviously, I'm afraid the team won't meet expectations. Over the past few months expectations have slowly risen, from "well, we're an expansion team" to "we'll be competitive every game" to "why can't we challenge for a playoff spot?" The shock of actual, competitive MLS action might come as a real blow. If Toronto FC plays like, well, like a poised, veteran team taking on a bunch of newcomers and we wind up losing ugly, or if our old anaemic offense shows up and we end up with yet another 0-0 draw, then the jovial mood could be shattered pretty quickly. I wouldn't say Vancouver fans are fair weather, since obviously it rains here all the time, but particularly in the case of an expansion team playing a niche sport it won't do to be hapless in this market. The BC Lions would be happy to sell more tickets, and they're probably going to win the West Division this year. Winning is a tonic. Losing is a poison.
Ultimately, though, the on-field performance might not be the most important part of our first season. As long as the Whitecaps are reasonable (think "Toronto FC in their first season"), there won't be too many complaints. Put up a fight in the Voyageurs Cup, get a big home win over a better team that everybody will remember, be competitive in the rest of 'em, I think most of us would take that even if we won't admit it. It's the off-field side of things, in every sense, that I should be most confident in and yet which worries me more than any other.
I'm a little worried about the organization. You'll recall that the front office staff have had a lot of problems in the off-season. Their season ticket presale was shambolic, tickets went the wrong directions, people weren't charged when they should have been or were charged when they shouldn't. Tickets were distributed placing fans in the wrong seats entirely and voided hastily on the spur of the moment when the problem was discovered. Packages containing more than a thousand bucks worth of season tickets were left sitting on doorsteps without so much as a signature or a by-your-leave. Toronto FC fans had a devil of a time getting into the game, and on a (much) smaller level the only reason I got into the Vancouver - Portland Supporters Summit game was because of understanding Seattle Sounders ticket staff. The organization is getting better, and when a problem has been discovered the top brass have busted their balls to fix it. I'll never criticize the Whitecaps front office's attitude, but the execution has been... well, minor league. That won't build fan loyalty.
I'm worried about the image our stadium will present to the world. Swangard Stadium in Burnaby is small and basic, but it's also picturesque as balls and one of the best places in North America to just enjoy a soccer game. Empire Field is located in an ugly part of town, a stones throw from some roller coasters. The facilities are a row of honey buckets, the concessions under tents. The player dressing rooms are a bunch of prefab portables joined together with heat and running water piped in. As a temporary stadium it's a hell of an accomplishment, but as a showpiece it falls well short of "major league". Not all the seats in the corners even face the right direction for soccer. The press box hasn't got huge pillars in it, which puts it ahead of BMO Field and should at least keep the chattering classes happy, but what the first-time viewer at the stadium or on television sees won't impress.
I'm afraid the support won't be as energetic as we all hope. The marketing of the south end as a "supporters section" was fairly half-assed, and anyway ticket buyers were tossed all over the stadium when their tickets were converted from BC Place to Empire Field. There are diehards scattered like sticks in the wind, and there's bound to be some moms and some businessmen and people just there for the family-friendly soccertainment in the south stands. These people will be exposed to rowdy, profanity-filled chanting. Odds are these people aren't going to like it. If there's enough of them they're going to do something to kill the wave of emotion and intensity on which all supporters rely, even if it's something as simple as sitting in sullen silence or asking the guys in front of them to sit down; they're blocking the view. Could the great show of support for Vancouver's first MLS game wind up still-born, washed out in white ponchos and drowned out by cheap souvenir drums? Could we wind up as just the advance scouting party for the next Bouncy Castle FC?
I'm still optimistic. I'm still looking forward to a great crowd at Empire and a tremendous game that ends with a huge Whitecaps victory. But that doesn't mean I can't confess a few doubts.