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Whitecaps say ‘nothing imminent’ on NWSL front

The Vancouver Whitecaps, pictured in blue in a 2012 W-League game. (Photo Copyright: Debby von Winckelmann)

The Vancouver Whitecaps, pictured in blue in a 2012 W-League game. (Photo Copyright: Debby von Winckelmann)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The success and fan support for the Women’s World Cup was a major boon for Canada. People came out and supported not only the host country and the United States, but other teams not quite as well-known. The spotlight on the sport was at an all-time high in Canada.

It is hoped by many that the momentum built from the World Cup would increase interest, and put pressure on Canada Soccer to help bring an expansion National Women’s Soccer League team to Canada, which does not have a professional league. Vancouver has long seemed the most likely destination, but that possibility has a slim to zero percent chance of happening anytime soon.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC co-owner Jeff Mallett was available during a mid-season roundtable discussion earlier this week and clarified the organizations thoughts on bringing the NWSL to Vancouver.

“We’re looking at the league (NWSL),” Mallett said. “We know everybody down there. Portland has a team; we’re exposed to everything inside the walls. There’s nothing imminent that we’re working on at this particular time. It’s something strategically if you look at our pyramid, it’s something down the road that could be a possibility for us.”

[MORE: NWSL, FAWSL see attendance bumps in wake of World Cup]

The USL W-League had a Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team that last took the field during the 2012 season. Following that season, the Whitecaps announced that they would no longer field a women’s team. The Whitecaps currently have a girls at the U-13 – U-18 level, which helps develop players into the Canada Soccer Women’s Regional EXCEL Centre (REX).

The Whitecaps have shifted focus towards other investments, including a residency program and a USL team that will eventually go a long way in helping to improve the future development of players for the MLS club. Mallett maintains that the Whitecaps organization hasn’t turned its collective back on the women’s game.

“We care about the women’s game; we haven’t discarded the women’s game,” he said. “We have lots on our plate. Let’s focus in on the elite REX program, hook up with the national program. Use our dollars and our efforts to try to do this with the (age) fifteens, sixteens, and seventeens and lead them on up there. I think because of the alliances with the associations (the NWSL has with) the Mexican federation, Canada, and U.S. and the subsidies that go there, I think that can kick on. We’ll keep an eye on what the other opportunities are in the women’s game.”

One of the star players on Portland Thorns FC is Christine Sinclair. When it comes to the club level, there is nothing more that Sinclair would like to see in Canada than a professional women’s soccer team. The all-time leading Canadian goal-scorer reiterated her thoughts while on TSN 1040 Radio last Thursday.

Multiple sources indicated that Vancouver was close to obtaining an NWSL team for the league’s inaugural season in 2013, but talks broke down. It was thought that a Vancouver NWSL team would feature many Canadian national team players.

[MORE: Complete coverage of the Canadian women’s national team]

Vancouver Whitecaps FC president Bob Lenarduzzi talked about the long-term investment the Whitecaps are making and how much Canada coach John Herdman has been part of the ongoing development.

“I think we want to talk about the investment in the women’s game and that’s through the REX program that John Herdman is very much behind and has established a curriculum for that,” Lenarduzzi said. “There’s two centers right now, one in British Columbia, Quebec, and there will be one in Ontario. The best part of that involvement is John Herdman. You’ve seen what he’s done with the women’s team. He also recognizes that either his coaching career or whoever comes in after him will be determined by whether or not we’re producing players. We felt that with all that is going on, the best contribution that we can make was through the development of the younger players.”

One of the main reasons for previously failed women’s league in North America has been costs, combined with low attendance levels across the league. The NWSL is hoping to get a large boost in attendance because of the U.S. winning the World Cup. Some of that bump has already begun, with the Houston Dash drawing a record crowd of 13,025 fans on Sunday.

Portland is without a doubt the strongest franchise financially, but for other teams it can be a real struggle to balance costs, and put a product on the pitch that people want to come and watch. Lenarduzzi knows Vancouver is a special market, but he isn’t quite sold on fan support if Vancouver were to host a professional women’s soccer team.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “When you look at the league outside of Portland, the average attendances are around 3,000. I think Vancouver is a special market, but as Jeff said, we’ll keep and eye out on what’s going on. If we feel that we’re far enough down the road with our current projects — which are still a work in progress — it is something that we would look at. We want to make sure that if and when we do it, that we’re setting ourselves up for success.”

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush mentioned in the days following the 2015 Women’s World Cup final that there are as many as a dozen groups interested in NWSL expansion teams. It is clear, however, that there could be some wait for a professional women’s team in Vancouver.

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