Whitecaps Year One: Weeks of a slow build see ‘Caps ready to kick off a legacy

Whitecaps Year One: Weeks of a slow build see ‘Caps ready to kick off a legacy

Vancouver Whitecaps kicked off their first ever season on Sunday May 5th 1974. Fifty years on from the eve of that historic first match in the North American Soccer League, the modern day ‘Caps celebrated with a match at BC Place against Austin FC in Major League Soccer action.

A much different team, playing in a different league, and in a stadium that wasn’t even built when the very first Whitecaps team kicked off five decades ago. But the Whitecaps name lives on and so do the memories, with 110 alumni taking in the 2024 Whitecaps match this weekend.

We’ve been chronicling ‘This Week In Whitecapsland 1974′ every week in the podcast and you can see our early articles on the first few months of the Whitecaps’ existence HERE. Our last article saw the Whitecaps appoint their first ever head coach, Jim Easton, but the next couple of months for the Scotsman saw a very slow build of his squad and a lot of off-the-pitch wranglings as the first match approached.

Let’s bring you right up to date with the most important things of note as the Whitecaps got themselves ready for their first ever First Kick:

FEB 20: The Whitecaps invited 28 local amateur players to tryout at Empire Stadium. A number of those players went on to be signed by the Whitecaps for their inaugural season including forward Chris Bennett, defender Sam Lenarduzzi, and goalkeeper Greg Weber.

FEB 25: Rick Ragone was appointed Assistant GM to Denny Veitch, joining the club from Miami Toros. Ragone had spent the past two seasons with the Florida side and had initially joined the ‘Caps for sales and marketing, but this appointment would see him oversee all aspects of soccer operations.

MAR 9: Victoria born Bruce Twamley had agreed to join the Whitecaps on loan after the English season finished. The Ipswich Town defender then went off injured in his side’s match against Wolves on March 9th. Ipswich manager Bobby Robson then relayed the news to Easton that Twamley had broken his ankle and would now not be coming to Vancouver. Twamley eventually came to Vancouver the following year, making 18 appearances and scoring two goals in his only season here.

MAR 11: Whitecaps tickets went on sale to the general public. Ticket prices ranged from $3 upwards. A four for the price of three season ticket offer in the cheapest section of the stadium was $90, offering a $30 saving for the 10 home games.

MAR 14: After losing Twamley, the Whitecaps confirmed two players that were coming over from England, taking their roster to a whopping three players less than two months out from the start of the season. Wolves’ English forward Joe Mayo was one, but in the end he didn’t come over. The other was Reading defender Bobby Lenarduzzi. Lenarduzzi did come of course, making 19 appearances and scoring two goals in that first season. Lenarduzzi went on to become a club legend, playing in all 11 NASL seasons for the Whitecaps, making 288 appearances, scoring 31 goals and tallying 57 assists.

MAR 19: The Whitecaps took their tally of signed players to four with the addition of veteran Scottish Billy Stevenson. The 30-year-old midfielder had a 16-year pro career up to this point, playing for the likes of Rangers and Liverpool. Stevenson went on to make 19 appearances for the Whitecaps in their inaugural season, tallying one assist. He was also on the roster for the 1975 season but made no appearances due to injury.

MAR 21: The Whitecaps made another addition, English defender Roger Minton from Wolves. Minton was another of the English players to then not come over to Vancouver, but he did play one season in the NASL for Washington Diplomats in 1975.

MAR 24: The Whitecaps first ever signed player, forward Glen Johnson, broke his wrist playing for Pegasus in the BC League First Division. It was an injury that saw him miss the start of the season and play on 12 matches that first year. Another potential local signing, winger Sergio Zanatta, also broke his ankle that same weekend playing for Vancouver Italia. Were the Whitecaps cursed?!

MAR 27: The PNE finally approved the Whitecaps request to use Empire Stadium as their home. They rejected the club’s request, however, to widen the pitch by 10 yards and to move it 25 yards north to make for a better soccer experience and bring the action closer to the fans.

[Cutting: The Province 29/3/1974]

The Whitecaps held two more tryout sessions at Empire Stadium as they scouted for local talent, with thirty players training on a rainy Thursday and another batch the following night. Whitecaps head coach Jim Easton had been paying close attention to the local leagues in the search for talent that could make the jump to the pros, telling the Province – “I’ve been watching as many B.C. League games as possible since I came here. I have a few players in mind already, but these open trials are essential. Every once in a while you make a real find.”

APR 1: With only six players signed, and two of them injured, the Whitecaps held their third trials in a week for 24 players. The Whitecaps also announced that 15,000 amateur soccer players, including all members of the B.C. Juvenile Soccer Association, had been invited to attend the Whitecaps opening match on May 5th free of charge. A clever tactic by owner Herb Capozzi, who had made a public bet with the other four new teams in Seattle, San Jose, LA, and Boston that Vancouver would have the biggest crowd for their opener!

APR 4: It was revealed that the PNE again turned down a Whitecaps request to change the pitch at Empire Stadium at a board meeting. They also rejected the club’s request for a $2000 reduction in gameday rent for the stadium. Whitecaps GM Denny Veitch responded by saying the club would have “to consider folding our tent. We simply cannot afford to pay the same rental rate (15 percent) as the primary tenant (B.C. Lions)”. Both sides playing some hardball a month out from the start of the season. Veitch said he would be appealing the decisions.

APR 8: The Whitecaps signed their starting goalkeeper, Bermudan international Sam Nusum. The 27-year-old had spent the last two years in the NASL with the now defunct Montreal Olympique and went on to play 17 games for the Whitecaps in 1974, keeping six clean sheets. Nusum only spent one year in Vancouver and played the following season for the New York Cosmos.

APR 9: The Whitecaps were forced to deny a radio report that they had 15 players under contract! Jim Easton confirmed 16 players were taking part at daily training at Empire, but they weren’t all signed yet.

APR 17: Three new Whitecaps were announced taking the team’s roster to nine! Defenders Neil Ellett and Gerry Heaney were joined by forward Brian Gant. Ellet and Gant were Canadians, with Gant also a player for the national team. His contract had to be approved by the CSA before he was allowed to officially join, with Canada Soccer wanting to make sure he would be released for summer training camps. Gant made it clear he wanted to play the whole season with the Whitecaps with no interuptions, and was just an ongoing part of the battle between the Whitecaps and the CSA.

Gant went on to lead the team with 20 appearances that inaugural season, scoring six goals and tallying one assist. He went on to play two more NASL seasons in Vancouver before going on to play another six with Portland Timbers. Ellett made just five appearances in 1974, scoring one goal, but played 19 matches the following season, his second and final one in the NASL. Scotsman Heaney made only four appearances that first season, but stayed on for another year where he made 19 more, adding one assist.

[Cutting: The Province 18/4/1974]

APR 18: And then there was 10! Darryl Samson, a 21-year-old midfielder with UBC, became the latest Whitecap and the sixth B.C. based player to be signed. Samson went on to make five appearances that first season, scoring one goal and tallying two assists. He went on to play three further seasons with Vancouver, finishing his Whitecaps career with 21 appearances, three goals, and two assists.

APR 24: A name that was to become a Canadian and British Columbian footballing legend was signed by the Whitecaps, 22-year-old defender Bruce Wilson. After playing locally with Vancouver Italia, Wilson went on to make 20 appearances for the Whitecaps in their first season, the most on the team alongside the above mentioned Gant, scoring one and grabbing one assist. Playing four seasons in total with the ‘Caps, Wilson made 92 appearances, scoring four goals and tallying 19 assists, before going on to play in the NASL with Chicago Sting, New York Cosmos, and Toronto Blizzard. Wilson went on to captain Canada at the 1986 World Cup before transitioning into coaching, where he led the UVic Vikes for over three decades.

APR 25: The Whitecaps added a second goalkeeper, Greg Weber. The Winnipegger was playing for UBC Thunderbirds and joined the ‘Caps as backup to Sam Nusum. Weber went on to play three times that first year, but went on to play three season in total for the Whitecaps, becoming the starter in 1975, making 21 appearances and keeping six clean sheets.

The Whitecaps held an intra-squad game in the pouring rain. The match finished 1-1 with both goals coming from unsigned players – Victor Kodelja and Chris Bennett.

[Cutting: The Province 26/4/1974]

APR 27: The Whitecaps headed down the I5 to take part in a three team preseason round-robin competition in Seattle against two of the other new boys in the NASL, the Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes. Each team played two 50-minute matches against their opponents, all over the same day. The ‘Caps and the Quakes drew the first match 0-0 before the ‘Caps were right back at it against the Sounders. Vancouver won that match 2-0 with Chris Bennett scoring two minutes in and Victor Kodelja adding a second from the spot late on. San Jose beat Seattle 2-0 in the final game.

APR 29: A trio of players were announced as the latest signings – defender Sam Lenarduzzi and forward Chris Bennett and Brian Budd. The 25-year-old Lenarduzzi had already made 31 appearances for the Canadian national team and went on to play 16 times for the ‘Caps that first season, tallying one assist. Lenarduzzi went on to play five seasons for the Whitecaps, making 98 appearances, scoring two goals, and adding three assists.Bennett had been impressing preseason, but only scored twice in his eight appearances that inaugural season, his only one as a Whitecap. He went on to play in the NASL for Seattle Sounders and Memphis Rogues over three seasons, but he never scored another goal.

The most intriguing of these three signings was Budd, a 23-year-old signing from UBC. Not for his two goals and one assist from his 10 1974 appearances, or his seven goals from 39 appearances over five NASL seasons for the ‘Caps. Budd went on to win both the Canadian TV show Superstars for three years between 1978 (his last season as a Whitecap) and 1980, and the Best of the World edition those three years as well. I used to watch this show as kid in the 70’s and loved it. For those unaware, various sportsmen competed in various sporting events from running to archery to swimming. Budd sadly passed away aged only 56 years old in 2008.

MAY 1: West Brom informed the Whitecaps that they had decided against loaning Joe Mayo and Roger Minton to them for the 1974 season and wanted them to report to preseason training with them instead.

MAY 2: Undeterred by losing two of their English signings, the Whitecaps went out and added two Scots instead – George McLean and Charlie Palmer – alongside Canadian Gary Thompson from local side New Westminster Blues. McLean went on to be the club’s points leader for the 1974 season with five goals and five assists in the former Rangers man’s only season in the NASL. Palmer went on to play two seasons in Vancouver, making 22 overall appearances (15 in 1974), scoring two goals (one each season), and adding four assists, three of those coming in the inaugural season. Thompson only played three games for the Whitecaps in 1974, adding one assist, but went on to play five seasons for the ‘Caps in total, making 27 overall appearances two goals and contributing three assists.

May 2nd also saw the PNE agree to a flat rental fee to the Whitecaps of $20,000 for the season, waiving their percentage claim on gross admissions. The also agreed to widen the pitch by 10 yards, as earlier requested by the ‘Caps.

And the stage was set for the big kick off on May 5th. We’ll cover that special day in the next article.

[Cutting: The Province 4/5/1974]

Authored by: Michael McColl

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