Whitecaps Year One: Historic inaugural match ends in penalty shootout heartbreak for the ‘Caps

Whitecaps Year One: Historic inaugural match ends in penalty shootout heartbreak for the ‘Caps

(Cutting Photo Credit: Deni Eagland/Vancouver Sun – May 6th 1974)

And so it began.

Sunday May 5th 1974.

The scene was set. Over 17,000 fans packed into Empire Stadium on a very wet, Sunday afternoon. The rain poured down, but they cared not a jot as they were there to see history being made. Vancouver Whitecaps took to the pitch for the very first time in competitive action, facing fellow North American Soccer League (NASL) new boys, the San Jose Earthquakes.

The build up to the match in the city had been all over the local media. The buzz had been growing. Now the day was here. And while the match may not have ended how the Whitecaps had hoped, a footballing legacy had begun.

Long story short, Vancouver and San Jose played out a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes of action, but under the newly introduced tiebreak system in the NASL, the game went to a penalty shootout and the Whitecaps lost 7-6.

I want to give you just a little bit of a flavour of what the press reported the following day, Monday, May 6th.

In the Vancouver Province, Jeff Cross, the storied soccer reporter who covered the Whitecaps for many a year and documented their historic 1979 Soccer Bowl victory, wrote a piece for the Province under the headline – “Hearbreaking start for Whitecaps – Foiled on fateful penalty kicks”.

[Cutting: The Province – Monday May 6th 1974]

Cross wrote, “Vancouver Whitecaps will go through a lot of heartache and frustration in their North American Soccer League career, but none will match the misery of the new NASL team following its debut at Empire Stadium Sunday.

“The young Whitecaps dominated play throughout most of the game, played in the pouring rain before 17,343 fans, but after winding up in a 1-1 tie after the 90 minutes, they lost on the NASL’s newly introduced tiebreak system of penalty kicks.”

Officially going in the history books as a 2-1 San Jose victory, in the actual 90 minute game itself, San Jose had taken the lead just three minutes in, when their Mexican midfielder Manny Hernandez scored with their first shot of the game, firing home a low one from the edge of the box when the ball came to him from a corner.

Neil Ellett drew the Whitecaps level in the 37th minute. Picking up a loose ball, when a defender failed to properly clear Glen Johnson’s corner, he fired home from 22-yards out and Vancouver were level, the Empire fans joyous, and Ellett wrote himself into Vancouver soccer folklore with the Whitecaps first ever goal in the club’s history.

The Whitecaps had dominated the match but just couldn’t get the winning goal in the second half and with it finished all tied up at 1-1, the match headed to a penalty shootout.

The teams were tied at three apiece after each team’s first five penalties. That then increased to 6-6 as the shootout continued. Then San Jose’s Ernie Racine missed one, giving Vancouver a chance to win it on their next penalty. But Brian Budd shot wide, then Mark Demling scored for San Jose to make it 7-6 and the Whitecaps’ Brian Gant pull his kick wide and the game was over.

The Whitecaps had started their existence with a narrow, disappointing, and heartbreaking loss.

Dan Stinson of the Vancouver Sun wrote an opening lede the day after the game that is going to sound a little bit all too familiar to Vancouver sports fans.

[Cutting: Vancouver Sun Monday May 6th 1974]

Dan wrote, “Well it’s like the experts keep saying. Vancouver gets the fans, the opposition the points, victory in defeat old boy, victory in defeat. The Whitecaps got the city back into North American soccer Sunday and in typical Vancouver sporting fashion, it was on a losing note.”

Amongst the 17,343 fans in attendance at Empire Stadium for the historic inaugural match were over 10,000 youth soccer players. As I mentioned in a previous article, Whitecaps owner Herb Capozzi had given all the local youth soccer players in Vancouver the chance to come along and get free tickets. The initial plan was to give out around 15,000 tickets overall, with just about 10,000 actually turning up for the match. Others no doubt were put off attending due to the torrential rain that the game was played in.

In his postgame comments, Whitecaps head coach Jim Easton was frustrated.

“Certainly we did enough to win, but we didn’t and it goes down in the books as a defeat,” Easton mused to media after the match. “Our boys came back in fine style after giving up that goal in the first few minutes and I don’t believe San Jose had a shot on our goal in the entire second half, but the result will be an education for our youngsters. Now they know what pro soccer is all about and what they have to do to win. I was most proud of them for fighting back the way they did, but boy it’s frustrating to lose like that.”

Reading that and looking back the modern day Whitecaps’ 50th anniversary match against Austin at the weekend, it was perhaps fitting that Austin turned up, didn’t really trouble Yohi Takahoka, and the Whitecaps ended up with a draw. Fifty year on, they were frustrated that their possession and play didn’t get the win. The more things change…

At least this one didn’t go to a penalty shootout.

Authored by: Michael McColl

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