More than half a century of matches has made soccer our sleeper hit
By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer
Soccer in Vancouver is close to the height of its popularity, with Whitecaps games regularly selling out in the playoff seasons over the past few years. To the youth, the popularity of the game might be confusing. However, its origins run deeper than the younger members of the population would know. Soccer has a surprisingly long and convoluted history in Vancouver, disappearing and returning for over a century before reaching its current heights.
The first soccer league Vancouver participated in as a city was the United Soccer Association, a short-lived group founded in 1966 consisting of the Vancouver Royal Canadians, the Toronto City, and the usual lineup of American sports cities. The USA was only around for two years before merging with its competitor, the National Professional Soccer League, to capitalize on the rapidly-growing popularity of FIFA’s World Cup in the Americas. It was here in the new North American Soccer League that the first iteration of the Whitecaps would be born in 1974.
For the next decade, soccer peaked in the city. The newly-constructed BC Place Stadium drew in 60,000 spectators in 1983, nearly double the total seats in the former Empire Stadium. The Whitecaps were well on their way to compete with hockey as Vancouver’s favourite sports team. Unfortunately, the rest of the NASL was less successful. Viewership crashed on the East Coast in the early ’80s and debt rapidly built up. Competition from another league, corporate interference, and economic hardships in the US led to the end of the League in 1984, forcing the most popular soccer team in Vancouver’s history to shut down near the peak of its success.
In 1986, the Whitecaps made their glorious return as the Vancouver 86er’s, participating in the new Canadian Soccer League and dominating. The name stayed until 2000 and the old Whitecaps name was re-purchased by the team. They predictably staggered in popularity in the city throughout the 2000s, and public interest was low until they were accepted into Major League Soccer in 2011. A new team to the MLS, the Whitecaps had their ups and downs in the short five years since.
Today, they enjoy a reputation as a premier North American soccer team with a strong youth presence, and the highest attendance in decades. Soccer is now Vancouver’s second most popular in-home sport, and the future only seems to be looking up from here.