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Originally published March 2, 2011 at 8:03 PM | Page modified March 2, 2011 at 10:55 PM

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Support is high for Vancouver's new MLS team — and so are expectations

Vancouver has been crazy about soccer since the success in the 1970s of its North American Soccer League team. Whitecaps fans will be expecting a winner in MLS play.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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VANCOUVER, B.C. — The Whitecaps' reintroduction to the top tier of North American soccer couldn't come at a more perfect setting — Empire Field, a temporary stadium built on the same plot of land that hosted Vancouver's storied franchise in the North American Soccer League.

Until renovations of BC Place are complete in September, the city's first taste of Major League Soccer will come on hallowed ground, it seems. But Whitecaps FC won't need the ghosts of games past to revive the passion for the sport.

As Vancouver and Portland join MLS this season as expansion teams, thus reviving the Northwest rivalry, the Canadian club has already established loyal support in the stands and a strong foundation in business partnerships.

"The Whitecaps ... could be as big as Seattle," said MLS commissioner Don Garber in a radio interview with CKNW AM-980. "And I'm hopeful in time that (they) will be."

Before the first kick of the ball, Whitecaps FC is already en route to the Sounders FC standard.

The team has sold more than 15,500 season tickets and has one of the most lucrative sponsorships in the league with Bell Canada. In a meeting with local reporters, Garber said Vancouver's deal with the telecommunications company was "one of the larger non-media, stand-alone sports sponsorships" in the United States and Canada.

Little of that comes as a surprise to coach Teitur Thordarson, who retained his job as the team made its leap to MLS from the United Soccer Leagues.

"There is big interest in what's going on, especially with the rivalry," Thordarson, an Iceland native, said with a slight Nordic lilt. "It's the history of the club and the city. It's great history from the old NASL. That culture lives on in the city, we can clearly see that."

With fan support already in the top end of the league, there is loud demand to field a successful product. But already in preseason there has been some uneasiness surrounding Whitecaps FC's roster, especially regarding the forward position.

As of Wednesday, the team had only two forwards under contract and one of them — 17-year-old Omar Salgado, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft — might not be eligible by FIFA rules until he turns 18 in September.

Despite having questions to answer regarding depth and top-end talent, Vancouver isn't hiding from the pressure to perform.

"I think that's only positive," Thordarson said. "We want people in the stadium. We love the expectations. Hopefully the stadium will be full and we can live up to that. We have a good group of players here and I definitely think that we will be a good team."

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Rivalries provide another motivation, and along with continuing the battle for the Cascadia Cup with Seattle and Portland, the Whitecaps have another natural rival in Toronto FC. The cross-Canada clash is equally important to some fans.

Assistant coach Denis Hamlett, a former coach of the Chicago Fire, said the league is entering new territory with the region's rivalries.

"We had some (in Chicago), but I don't think those will be anywhere near what I'm going to experience with Vancouver, Seattle and Portland — or even with Toronto," Hamlett said. "It's just going to go to a different level. When we go down there (to Seattle and Portland) they've had to limit the number of tickets for our fans; that makes it very interesting."

Most important, of course, is the sense of history, and Vancouver was one of the top NASL teams for years. The Whitecaps won the Soccer Bowl in 1979 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies and won four other division titles between 1978 and 1983.

In 1978, local legend Alan Hinton came out of retirement to record a league-record 30 assists as a left winger and lead Vancouver to a 24-6 record. That season the team lost to Portland in the conference semifinals, which marked the third consecutive playoff exit at the hands of a Cascadia rival.

Those memories of trophies and heartbreak aren't forgotten in Vancouver, and provide the foundation of support seen today.

"A lot of clubs in MLS started fresh and they are waiting for a generation of fans that's grown up with soccer — here they already have that," said midfielder John Thorrington, a league veteran acquired in the offseason. "That's a big influence in the number of season-ticket holders. That's a huge advantage for the team.

"It's a big soccer community. With that history, the whole Pacific Northwest has really taken to soccer. We've seen it in Seattle and that's what this league needs more than anything: to generate rivalries. Fans are getting into it, players are getting into it, and I think it's going to be fantastic."

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

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