Whitecaps fandemonium reaches fever pitch

There's something curious about the constant near sell-out crowds that characterize home games for the Vancouver Whitecaps, a soccer club scrapping the bottom of Major League Soccer standings.

Unlike the proverbial Canucks bandwagon, 'Caps fandom is a lifestyle.

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In Saturday's home game versus the Houston Dynamo, the Whitecaps-a team with only three wins before kickoff-played to 20,226 spectators. The first game this season opened to a sell-out crowd of 22,592. The July 30 game against the L.A. Galaxy brought the highest attendance so far this season with 27,500 filing into expanded seating in Empire Field, a stadium with general maximum capacity of 21,500.

The Whitecaps beat the Dynamo 1-0 but wins have otherwise been precious and few this expansion season. Saturday's win kept the Whitecaps from the shame of setting a new historic record in the MLS as the least-winning team in league history.

The crowds at Empire, however, are not fickle. Their ranks suggest the 'Caps are at the top of the standings and more fans pay to attend soccer games in Vancouver than the majority of other North American cities.

"It's not about the score, it's about the whole experience-start to finish," said John Knox, the president of the Southsiders, a fan club that dates to the 'Caps days at Swangard Stadium.

Knox counts himself among the 20 per cent of fans in the 700-person club who identify themselves, first and foremost, as Whitecaps fans. Otherwise, support for the Canucks factors large among these sports fans.

"There's a huge cross over," said Knox. "I'd say most of them are Canucks fans, no question about it."

Ten months of hockey isn't enough to satiate everyone's desire for professional sports, said Knox. There is a demand for live competition, fan loyalty and regional rivalry in Vancouver that the Canucks and NHL can't quench alone. Plus, no one chants inside a hockey arena. Soccer stadiums have a patently different atmosphere. This is where the Whitecaps factor in.

"It's not just about handing over your money to the box office and sitting in your seat, waiting for something to happen," Knox said. "Hockey, as it's played in North America, has been presented in a way that people expect to go there and just watch."

The Whitecaps front office and its star athletes are putting out a message to the Canucks and addressing the one-sport city status: Vancouver may very well be big enough for both of us.

"I think we have what it takes," fan-favourite Eric Hassli said in French. "It's going to be very, very hard. The Canucks are monstrous, but I think there's room. This city is very sporty, there's room for everyone."

The club's interim head coach and director of soccer operations, Tom Soehn, agrees.

"This city is big enough to house more than one team. It's a city that can adapt and support many teams," he said.

Captain Jay DeMerit put out an extended invite to Canucks captain Henrik Sedin.

"I know he's a soccer fan, so let's get him out," he said Saturday.

For DeMerit, the Vancouver hockey bandwagon effect doesn't translate to Vancouver soccer. But fans of both sports are capable of strong reaction, intense loyalty and severe disappointment in the face of loss-be it a regular season defeat for a losing team or being shutout in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

"You're always going to have your passionate supporters so when you lose, you're going to have your fans passionate about the negativity," DeMerit said, alluding to the June 15 downtown riot following the Canucks loss to the Boston Bruins. "But on the soccer side, they've been very positive for us. There aren't as many of those [fans] who look at the negative side."

Knox explains that soccer in Vancouver is less about the scoreboard and more about the action on the field and in the stands.

"At the end of the day, it's never about the results," Knox said. "The point in soccer is there is no bandwagon. This is a team you support, through thick and thin, for life.

"Soccer fans have given themselves the right to have fun the way they're supposed to. They know they can sing their hearts out and no one is going to tell them to sit down and be quiet.

"It's that social thing. It's that community thing. I know a friend of mine who is a Canucks season ticket holder. They could sit next to someone for six season and never talk to them."

The Whitecaps owners aren't dropping their gloves. Instead, said Bob Lenarduzzi, the president of the soccer franchise who grew up in Vancouver, "I still want to bow down to the Canucks. This is a hockey city. If that could ever happen, we would be ecstatic," he said of the potential to overtake the Canucks in the hearts and minds of the province's sports fans.

Regardless, the Whitecaps have other objectives.

"We're not after that," said Lenarduzzi. "We're after doing a good enough job to maintain a fan base that keeps coming out year after year."

Knox and his crew of Southsiders are on side.

"I would say that there is something happening in Vancouver," said Knox. "It's unlike anything we have in North America. It's unlike any other sporting experience.

"You'll be a Whitecaps fan once we're done with you." kimiyasho@gmail.com

Twitter: @kimiyasho

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