Tomorrow the Vancouver Whitecaps will face Toronto FC in the first half of the Voyageurs Cup final. The Voyageurs Cup, as only readers from ex-Soviet republics won't know by now, is the Canadian national championship. If the Whitecaps beat the FCs in a two-legged final (lifetime record against Toronto: three wins, three draws, one loss), Vancouver is Canadian champion and will advance to the CONCACAF Champions League to take on some team you've never heard of. It's a big event; possibly the most important game this team will play in 2011. And how many patrons am I expecting at Empire Field tomorrow?
You see, tomorrow the Vancouver Canucks take on the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the NHL's Western Conference final. The Canucks are on the minds of probably 90% of this city's sports-loving populace, because this is Canada and every stereotype you've heard is true. Flip open the newspaper (I don't mean the sports section, I mean the newspaper and the Canucks are on the front page. Talk about sports and you'll be talking about the Canucks sooner rather than later. It's absorbed this city's sports consciousness to the point that only soccer diehards or Canucks haters (and I am both) are acknowledging the Whitecaps' own championship run at all.
The Canucks and Sharks drop the puck at 6 PM Pacific. The Whitecaps begin at 7 PM, by which time the hockey game will still be somewhere in the second period. It's a hard truth that not many Vancouver sports fans will pick lousy weather and a late start on a weeknight over playoff hockey. The true Whitecaps diehards will be in the stands, of course, as will the people who just don't give a toss about the NHL (or the Canucks). But those two categories aren't all that large. Some fans are already murmuring dark predictions of a sub-10,000 gate.
Well, the rest of us will just have to be twice as loud, then. This isn't a crisis. This is, arguably, not even a problem. It's the inescapable reality of playing soccer in Canada in this country for at least the next generation.
Of course, none of this would matter if people didn't fret about the team's attendance. Should we be concerned that a mediocre team playing during a more popular local team's best run in seventeen years isn't selling out a cavernous temporary stadium with poor public transit connections in a lousy part of town? The Whitecaps currently run third in league average attendance, behind the Seattle Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy, or "exactly the two teams any rational observer expected the Whitecaps to be behind". They're ahead of the expansion rival Portland Timbers, they're ahead of Canadian rival Toronto FC, they're ahead of the best team in the league Real Salt Lake. The Whitecaps aren't papering their house with free tickets, although they're offering some nice Groupon sales in the next week. Unlike some first-year Major League Soccer teams, they didn't undervalue their season tickets. There's no reason the team would have to raise ticket prices to the dramatic extent that has undercut fan support in other cities. In short, this third-place level could last.
Much of the criticism of the Whitecaps' attendance is reactionary in nature. Rivals of the Whitecaps say that Vancouver fans are too stuck-up. We have just the third-best crowd in Major League Soccer but we act like we're number one. Well, that may be true, but every fan base which isn't suffering from self-esteem problems acts like it's number one. So they should! There's no place for modesty in sports fandom; it's a place to relieve the human needs for zealotry, tribalism, and disproportionate pride in a harmless context. Vancouver Southsiders president John Knox was criticized outside of Vancouver for, of all things, being proud of the Vancouver Southsiders, but it's hard to see what other position he could take even if the Whitecaps drew 500 fans a night.
We're going to hear more criticism on Wednesday, echoing around Empire's deserted stands. If I haven't got a Twitter feed full of Toronto FC fans mocking the two-thirds-empty stadium I will be flabbergasted. I don't blame the Toronto supporters. In the unlikely event that the Toronto Maple Leafs ever make a deep playoff run and TFC finds themselves in the Whitecaps' position, I won't hesitate to make fun of Toronto. That's how rivalries work: we're unfair to each other but that's okay so long as we're aware of it.
The problem is if banter evolves into serious navel-gazing. "My god, what if we are just a flash in the pan?" The team's not doing great, after all, and soon the B.C. Lions will be in season to take away some of those summer entertainment dollars. Even if fans in Vancouver know there's nothing to worry about, the last thing we need is observers from elsewhere in Canada or abroad seeing Vancouver as a second-rate soccer city because of a few bad gates during playoff season.
Non-Canadians or those far from NHL towns might not appreciate how all-consuming playoff hockey can be to the home city. This spring I've been walking down the streets of downtown Vancouver on horrible, rainy, wind-swept Thursday nights and seen dozens of people standing on a street corner looking into a shop window at a television playing the third period of a Canucks playoff game. You see pro-Canucks slogans in windows of businesses on the SkyTrain, you see mannequins in fine clothes shops dressed in Canucks colours rather than bespoke suits. It is the sports atmosphere right now; haters like me try to resist it but we do so in vain. To try and turn Vancouver's attention to soccer right now is to try and adjust the entire sports zeitgeist. You might as well stop a tsunami with a sandbag. A conversation this large will go on without you no matter how loudly you try to stop it.
Montreal Impact fans know what I'm talking about. Last year the Montreal Canadiens made a stellar playoff run of their own which crossed into Voyageurs Cup season. I was actually in Montreal for the Whitecaps' Voyageurs Cup game that year, and the day I arrived was the day the Canadiens bowed out of the playoffs. The very city seemed to have lost its spirit. Even with the Canadiens freshly eliminated, attendance at the Impact - Whitecaps game was pitiful. Not that they missed much. I gave their fans the gears and even posted mocking photos of empty stands on Twitter. Yet there's no doubt of Montreal's soccer bona fides.
How could you possibly expect the city of Vancouver to throw itself into soccer right now? If Empire Field is empty tomorrow it doesn't mean Vancouver isn't a soccer city, nor does it mean that the Whitecaps fad has ended. It means that, for the moment, even the Voyageurs Cup is being eclipsed by larger events. That's too bad. But it doesn't indicate anything about the city or the team, and as followers of the club we should make sure everybody knows it.