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Making Meaning for the Meaningless Friendly

(Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
(Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

As you may have gathered already, I'm not a big fan of mid-season friendlies for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Now that the Whitecaps have announced that Manchester City will be in town July 18 for the seemingly-obligatory MLS mid-season friendly, I feel... exactly the same way.

I bet I'm not alone. In fact, I bet most hardcore fans share my opinion. The advantage of a pre-season friendly is that you draw some European soccer fans who would otherwise avoid Major League Soccer and will hopefully be sufficiently impressed to become long-time fans. You also get to see a more glamourous and talented opponent than usual, albeit one which is just training for the regular season and has nothing riding on this game besides the usual pride of an athlete. I've never been sure, anecdotally, how well these games bring in new fans, but one presumes the MLS clubs have the hard data and know it's worthwhile. I've always feared that the credibility gain by bringing in a major European team is more than offset by the credibility loss of breaking up your season for a glorified scrimmage.

It would take a lot of new fans for a mid-season friendly to be worth the expense: the cash outlay of bringing a marquee team across the pond, the cost of temporarily adding grass to Empire Field, and the harder-to-quantify cost of its affect on the Whitecaps players; how will they react to having an extra game added to their schedule, possibly at a time of year when they'll be fighting for their playoff lives or charging headlong into the CONCACAF Champions League?

So this friendly had better be worth it. It could never mean anything on the field, so let's make sure it means something off. Let's have a nod to our sometimes-forgotten second division past. Let's have a salute to a great warrior in Whitecaps history. Let's have an event that'll matter even if the game's a dud, the rain is pouring, the Whitecaps lose 4-0, and the European team dresses its U-17 squad.

Let's have a testimonial to Martin Nash.

To my European readers, Martin Nash will seem like an odd choice for a player to honour with a testimonial. I'll immediately shrug off responsibility by saying I stole this from Vancouver Southsiders vice-president Brett Graham and a post he made on the Southsiders board, but I still think it's a fantastic idea. He played 244 regular season games in his career with the Vancouver 86ers and Whitecaps, always at the second-division level. His time with the Whitecaps was spent in three stints as his career roamed across the soccer world: to Stockport County, Chester City, Rochester (of all places), Macclesfield Town. He even played indoor in Dallas and, of course, in Edmonton. He had a distinguished career: 38 times a Canadian international, the Whitecaps' captain at the end of his career, two championships in Vancouver, a CONCACAF Gold Cup, and multiple all-league selections at midfielder. But those used to the careers of Ryan Giggs or Paolo Maldini will look on Nash's career and find it a little light.

As ever, we must take Martin Nash's accomplishments in a Canadian context. Few players matched his achievements or his level of play as a member of the Whitecaps and the Impact. If you were going to create a pantheon of Canadian players playing in Canada, you'd have a short list: Dale Mitchell, Domenic Mobilio, Lyndon Hooper, Nick Dasovic... Martin Nash has a place among them. He was somewhat underrated with the national team in the hoof-and-chase days of Bob Lenarduzzi and, later, Frank Yallop, but when he got his chance he proved that he was a world-class player with the ball at his feet. He was a determined leader and a powerful advocate for Canadian soccer. Next to the late Mobilio, Nash might be the most recognized and respected former 86er/Whitecap since the demise of the first North American Soccer League.

Moreover, from a strictly cynical, commercial perspective, the name "Nash" has a lot of meaning to Canadian sports fans. Nobody needs to be introduced to his basketball-playing brother Steve. Martin's never traded on his more famous older brother's name, but the Whitecaps have proved willing enough. The copy practically writes itself. "Martin Nash, brother of Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, is to be honoured for his service to the Vancouver soccer community when the Vancouver Whitecaps take on England's Manchester City at BC Place Saturday at 4 PM." Even the most MLS-phobic Vancouver sports fan will understand that, and catching his eye is the first step to selling him a ticket. Newbie reporters who couldn't care less about the A-League days might not be interested in talking to Jeff Clarke, but Steve Nash's brother is worth attention. And so on. It's sad that one of Vancouver's unsung sporting legends is so often viewed through the lens of "his brother is good at basketball", but soccer is a business and that's a good business move.

I realize that none of this is convincing the purists. You're shaking your monitor right now. He played just ten seasons in Vancouver! He left twice for better opportunities! He couldn't catch on with friggin' Macclesfield Town! And, unlike what usually happens when I discuss soccer purists, I actually understand where they're coming from this time. In most cases, they're right: a player like Nash who was constantly in and out of Vancouver wouldn't be testimonial-worthy. But Martin is more than a great player: he's a class act, he's a big name, and he's one of our best remaining links to the legacy of the Vancouver 86ers. He could both put bums in seats and bring home the history of Vancouver soccer to our tens of thousands of new fans, even while he's being honoured as one of the greatest players in Whitecaps history during a marquee event that, otherwise, would have just been an unwelcome distraction to an overworked team.

Make it happen.