O’CONNOR-CLARKE: Vancouver FC home opener first glimpse of special club, community relationship
Canadian Premier League

Midway through the second half on Sunday, you could see the mountains from Langley after a cloudy morning.

Similarly, on the pitch, it was around that time a more figurative cloud floated away from Vancouver Football Club.

With thousands in attendance and the eyes of the community upon them, Vancouver FC did not go gentle into a defeat to Cavalry FC in the first match they’ve ever played at Willoughby Park. Instead, the 10-man Eagles set their talons into the stadium’s turf and refused to let a tenuous first-half red card dictate the narrative of the game.

Coming out of halftime down a man, Vancouver conceded almost immediately — which could well have been curtains for the expansion club’s opening act. Within minutes, though, they were back: Kadin Chung to Gaël Sandoval to Shaan Hundal to the back of the net (possibly via Bradley Kamdem).

Hundal himself didn’t immediately know it had gone in — that particular realization dawned when he saw the Fraser Valley Fanatics behind the goal explode in cheers. After that equalizer, it was all hands on deck for Vancouver as the full-strength Cavalry probed their shorthanded backline as it began to tire late in the day, but they held firm, thanks in part to captain Callum Irving’s dazzling saves in stoppage time, and the CPL’s newcomers finished the match with smiles on their faces.

They might have anyway, to be fair.

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The real story, here, is mostly independent of the result on the pitch. The story is that 6,000-odd people watched a football team take the field to play for them. Those fans subsequently saw that team look around them, as Ibrahim Bakare explained far better than I ever could, and commit to reciprocating their passion.

It’s far from every day that a purpose-built professional soccer stadium opens in this country, particularly in a soccer community as vibrant as that of the B.C. Lower Mainland. The understanding of how special that is, and what exactly this club can be, filtered through the building.

The first highlight of the day, of course, was the unveiling of the fans’ first tifo. As several thousand in the south end chanted to the tune of the “Imperial March,” their banner of the Emperor slowly unfurled, flanked by the slogan “Welcome to the Dark Side” — an early favourite of this team, which has positioned itself as a community-focused pro club in opposition to a certain other Vancouver side.

The way that Bakare and Ameer Kinani clutched the badge on their shirts at the final whistle showed just how much this club means to players. So, too did the fact so many players remained on the pitch more than half an hour after the game to interact with every fan who approached for an autograph or photo — Irving alone must have met several hundred in the stadium’s north end, just behind the net where he’d salvaged Vancouver’s 1-1 draw with his last-minute goalkeeping heroics.

(Photo: Beau Chevalier/Vancouver FC)

After the whistle, every Vancouver player’s first thought was to salute the fans. As a unit, they made their way around all three stands to applaud them, before arriving at last in the south end, from which the loudest supporters had been in full voice the prior two hours. Kinani, once again, grabbed at the VFC crest on his jersey and brandished it to the crowd, much to their delight. Afshin Ghotbi soon arrived on the scene and had the entire team bow toward the stands.

On a day that saw the first steps for a club whose mandate is to unite the Greater Vancouver soccer community, that sense of connection revealed itself strongly. Already a few devoted supporters (and possibly family members) showed up in VFC kits with names on the back — I spotted a Romeo, a Simmons and a Chung, at least — but several more fan favourites emerged on Sunday.

Hundreds of kids had arrived in the jerseys of various B.C. youth clubs — from Surrey to Burnaby to Richmond to everywhere else in the area — but left the Langley Events Centre in a Vancouver FC shirt.

Personally, throughout the game I spoke to several who understand the game deeply — tactical nuances, idiosyncratic rules, player qualities — who hadn’t really been fans of any individual team before. Now, with Vancouver FC on their doorstep, that’s set to change.

The stadium itself sits in the middle of the Willoughby complex of training pitches, on which a handful of grassroots games continued to be played all weekend. The visual metaphor does drive home how Vancouver FC intend to be the centrepiece of local football — the professional club that the kids on those training pitches can aspire to one day play for.

Those dreams are already in motion, by the way: seeing 16-year-old Maple Ridge, B.C. native TJ Tahid come off the bench Sunday proves that the pathway is there.

Sunday’s game was, truly, the culmination of years of work from the top level down. It was clear, even on Saturday and Sunday morning, that the passion for the club felt by those on the pitch very much exists in the staff off it as well; the all-hands-on-deck attitude to ensuring final touches on the stadium were done was evidence of how much everyone at the club cares.

Now, game one — out of 14 — is in the books at this brand new venue. Although immense congratulations are due to Vancouver FC and its fans — including those who became fans on Sunday — the challenge now becomes capitalizing on the momentum of a special home opener and turning it into sustainable growth for a club whose potential is stratospheric.

Well done, Vancouver. Let’s do it all again next Saturday.

(Photo: Beau Chevalier/Vancouver FC)