Saturday March 19th 2011.
If you are a long time, and long suffering, Vancouver Whitecaps supporter that day will be etched into your memory. Another momentous occasion in the proud history of a famous club. That was the day that the Whitecaps MLS era kicked off.
Their inaugural match in the league turned into a 4-2 triumph over Canadian rivals Toronto FC at Empire Field in front of a sold out 22,592 crowd. Little did we think back then that the occasion would still be right up there as one of the ‘Caps best achievements and occasions a decade later. That in itself is a damning indictment on the club’s time in MLS all on its own, as we covered previously.
Ten years on, I still have such great memories of that whole day. From the pre-match gathering in Oscars Pub on East Hastings Street to the march to the match to the game itself and then the post-game joy and celebrations. I still get goosebumps watching footage of it all these years later, and I know I’m not alone.
The starting XI for the Whitecaps that day will certainly go down in club folklore:
Jay Nolly; Jonathan Leathers, Jay DeMerit, Michael Boxall, Alain Rochat; Davide Chiumiento, Gershon Koffie, Terry Dunfield, Russell Teibert; Atiba Harris, Eric Hassli
A team of history makers for sure, but if we’re being brutally honest, there’s not many from that starting line-up that would even be in the conversation to make the Whitecaps All-Time MLS XI.
Led by head coach Teitur Thordarson, it was a squad that was soon found out to be not of MLS quality as that inaugural season played out. They finished the season dead last in 18th place in what was then a single league table, ending up with a record of 6 wins, 10 draws, and 18 losses from their 34 matches, mustering only 28 points, scoring just 35 goals, and conceding 55.
In many ways it was a season to forget. In others, it was a season to always remember. That’s the weird beauty of football. As for that opening day starting XI, where are they now? How did their footballing careers pan out? Let’s take a look:
HEAD COACH – TEITUR THORDARSON:
The Icelandic manager was appointed Whitecaps head coach back in their USL days, taking the reigns in December 2007 and bringing home a USL Championship in his first season. That earned him the chance to be the Whitecaps first ever coach in MLS and after much speculation, he was officially appointed on September 1st 2010.
Nine months later, Thordarson was dismissed, just 12 games in to that inaugural MLS season. That opening day victory over TFC the only win the team had recorded. His MLS record finished with one win, six draws, and five defeats. Hindsight is obviously a wonderful thing and looking back now, he should have been given the whole season once the appointment was made, but you do have to question whether the appointment was actually the right one to begin with.
Since leaving the ‘Caps, Teitur was hired to be the head coach of Barasat Euro Musketeers in January 2012 in the newly formed Bengal Premier League in India. The league never got off the ground for a multitude of reasons and it was eventually cancelled a year later.
Teitur then spent a year and a half in Norway with Funnefoss/Vormsund Idrettslag, a club way down the pyramid levels of Norwegian football, before joining 2nd Division (third tier) Drøbak/Frogn Idrettslag in March 2014. They got relegated in his first season in charge and he stayed with them until 2018, but was unable to get them promoted again.
Now 69, that seems to have been his last club where he was in charge and he appears to be retired.
GOALKEEPER – JAY NOLLY:
“You’ll never beat Jay Nolly”, was the cry that rang out from the Southside in the Whitecaps’ USL days and those continued to MLS as Nolly beat out MLS veteran Joe Cannon for the opening day starting goalkeeping role.
He was clearly Teitur’s guy, having joined the Whitecaps in 2008, being an integral part of the team’s Championship winning success the same year, and winning the D2 Goalkeeper of the Year plaudits in 2010.
Nolly had come to Vancouver with previous MLS experience. He was drafted by Real Salt Lake in 2005 from Indiana University but went on to make only seven appearances for them in his two seasons in Utah, before heading to D.C. United in 2007, where he made a solitary MLS appearance.
His time in Vancouver was much more productive, with three seasons in D2 with the ‘Caps and then that inaugural MLS season in 2011 where he made 14 appearances.
After Thordarson left, Nolly lost the starting job to Cannon and he left the club at the end of that season to join Chicago Fire. Nolly never played a league game for what was to be his last MLS club, and he retired at the end of the 2012 season aged 29 to concentrate on a career in the health sales industry.
Nolly is still involved in football and has been the colour commentator on ESPN700 for Real Salt Lake matches since 2016. He saw action on the BC Place pitch in 2018 when he returned for the Legends and Celebrities match and you can hear our catch up chat with him after that game in Episode 300 of the AFTN Soccer Show.
RIGHT BACK – JONATHAN LEATHERS:
Ah, the mysterious Mr Leathers. Well not really. “Where is Jonathan Leathers?” became a running trope amongst Whitecaps supporters after he left the club at the end of the 2011 season, wasn’t selected in the re-entry draft, and took a two year break from the game.
Leathers was drafted 25th overall by the then Kansas City Wizards in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, and made his pro debut in the first game of that season against D.C. United. He went on to make 36 MLS appearances in his three seasons in Kansas before being selected in the 8th round of the 2010 MLS Expansion Draft.
He went on to play 22 times for the ‘Caps in their inaugural season, all but one of them as a starter. He didn’t tally any goals or assists, and is probably best remembered for his tough tackle on FC Dallas’ David Ferreira in the seventh game of the season in April. The referee didn’t see it as a foul (and it wasn’t) but Ferreira, the then league MVP, broke his ankle and was out for 15 months. A lot of that was to do with the Empire Field grass and his foot getting jarred, not on Leathers, who several pundits today still wrongly blame for the injury.
Leathers returned to the game for the 2014 USL season, joining Charlotte Eagles, where he made 16 appearances and scored his first professional goal against Dayton Dutch Lions on July 6.
But that was it for his footballing career on the pitch and he left the game to become a missionary, travelling to the likes of New Zealand, the Philippines, and Singapore to work with local churches and put on soccer clinics.
Leathers was inducted into Furman University’s Hall of Fame in 2015, after four years with the Paladins that saw him named the Southern Conference Men’s Player of the Year in 2006 and 2007. He currently coaches his old high school team, the Prince Avenue Christian School Varsity Boys, where he was appointed last February, and has been a personal soccer coach. This might surprise a few people, he still only 35-years-old!
CENTRAL DEFENDER – JAY DEMERIT
The most storied member of that first ever MLS Whitecaps starting line-up, the American World Cup defender was the first player officially signed by the club for their new era in the league.
DeMerit’s rise from college soccer in Chicago to English non-league football to the Premier League with Watford and on to the 2010 World Cup is a remarkable tale of success, determination, and self belief and has been well documented before in the likes of the documentary The Jay DeMerit Story.
Coming ‘home’ to MLS maybe was the next logical step as his career wound down, but coming to Vancouver was certainly a surprise when he was announced in November 2010.
The club’s first captain, his experience was felt to be crucial to the team that first season but injuries derailed him and he made just 21 appearances over the season. Back healthy for 2012 he played in 32 of the ‘Caps 35 MLS matches, including their first ever playoff game down in LA, and was named to the MLS All-Star team. He scored his first, and only, Whitecaps goal against Chivas on March 17th 2012, the winner in 1-0 victory that was the club’s first ever away win in the league.
But disaster struck for DeMerit in the first game of the 2013 season, where he went off injured six minutes in against Toronto with a ruptured Achilles tendon, an injury that kept him out till mid September.
He wasn’t the same when he returned and after 11 appearances in 2014, he announced in July that he was retiring from the game after 77 overall appearances for the ‘Caps, 210 with Watford, and 24 international cap with the US, winning a Gold Cup in 2007.
DeMerit still calls the lower mainland home and married his Canadian wife, Olympic goal medal skier Ashleigh McIvor in 2013. Footballwise, he runs a number of camps and is on the advisory board of TSS Rovers. His other business interests include launching the Portmanteau Stereo Company, who make unique and handcrafted stereos.
CENTRAL DEFENDER – MICHAEL BOXALL
One of only two players from that inaugural Whitecaps starting line-up to still be plying his trade in MLS, and one of only three to still be playing anywhere.
The big Kiwi was selected first overall by Vancouver in the 2011 MLS Supplemental Draft after four years at the University of Santa Barbara and with previous experience at both club and international level in New Zealand, where he’d won a couple of championships.
How much the ‘Caps saw him as a starter and how much was forced on him by DeMerit’s injury we can only speculate on, but Boxall went on to make 19 MLS appearances that first season. But as Martin Rennie came in, Boxall soon fell out of favour and was released by the club less than halfway through the 2012 season without making any appearances.
This wasn’t to be the end of his MLS journey, but before he was to return in 2017 with Minnesota, he returned to New Zealand and played two and a bit seasons with A-League side Wellington Phoenix before heading to South Africa and winning two Nedbank Cups with SuperSport United.
Then came his surprise return to MLS with the Loons. Adrian Heath brought him to Minnesota and he’s thrived back in the league, and definitely looks a better player than when he left. He has 96 MLS appearances now for Minnesota and tallied four goals. He’s also now up to 32 international appearances with New Zealand and won the 2016 OFC Nations Cup with the All Whites.
LEFT BACK – ALAIN ROCHAT:
Born in Canada, but moving to Switzerland when he was just two-years-old, Alain Rochat’s return to his homeland should have been a way happier one that it turned out to be and it ended with a bitter taste left in everyone’s mouth.
One of the most accomplished players on the Whitecaps inaugural MLS squad, Rochat came to Vancouver with a wealth of experience, having won two Swiss Super League titles with FC Zurich, played in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, and having earned a cap with Switzerland.
Rochat was the exact kind of player you would expect to build a team around. Having him and DeMerit on the backline should have been the foundations of the team for many years to come. Instead that left back foundation ended up going to Jordan Harvey (a midseason signing in 2011) and Rochat was traded away to D.C. United in controversial circumstances in 2013 after making 68 MLS appearances for the ‘Caps, scoring five goals and adding three assists.
With Rennie looking at Harvey for the left back role, rumours had Rochat (who could also play defensive midfielder and centre back) heading back to Europe at the end of the season. His wife was eight months pregnant with their fourth child, so he hadn’t planned for anything till after the birth, but Vancouver had other ideas and traded him to D.C. for a second round 2015 SuperDraft pick and a conditional 2016 pick, infuriating the Rochats.
Rochat played just five games for D.C. before being sold to his former club Young Boys in Switzerland for $500,000. After four seasons and 83 appearances, he moved to what was to be his final club, fellow Swiss side, Lausanne-Sport for the 2017-18 season, making 33 appearances before hanging up his boots aged 35.
Rochat now works in marketing in Switzerland and is a regular television pundit on Teleclub.
Next time, we look at the midfielders and attackers that started that historic match.