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From Elm Park to the MLS - Vancouver president came from Royal background

Few men in football have a stronger connection with their club than Bob Lenarduzzi has with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Lenarduzzi, pictured addressing the media (image: Bob Frid / Whitecaps FC), played in the Whitecaps’ first season in 1974 and has stuck with them through thick and thin ever since, achieving success as a player, coach and now the club’s president.

A career that started in England as a trainee with Reading in their Elm Park days, and involved the highs of representing Canada as both a player and manager, has given Lenarduzzi a unique perspective on the game, which he shares here with Total Football's Chris Smith.

Your association with the Whitecaps is extensive. How much does this club mean to you?

I’ve been with the club 37 years – that should tell you it has been a big part of my life. From the original Whitecaps’ slow start in 1974, to the rise of the 86ers in the Canadian Soccer League, and then the transition back to the Whitecaps, I have witnessed it all.

How important is it for the Whitecaps to be playing in the MLS?

Greg Kerfoot’s ownership took the club to the MLS in 2010, and being there has given the Whitecaps significantly more profile with a regular fan base of over 20,000 fans per match, which we hope to build on in the coming years.

The MLS is regarded as one of the most improved leagues in the world. Do you see this trend continuing in the next few years?

Yes I do. Unlike the North American Soccer League (NASL), the MLS is holding the line and expanding when expansion is right. The original three ownership groups started to sell off the teams to individuals that would actually own the teams. From there, beyond that 10, virtually every team that has come into the MLS has established some pretty significant fan bases. 

In terms of the quality of play, it is getting better and better. Ideally, some of the younger North American athletes that would usually aspire to hockey or football will end up choosing soccer, which would result in the level of play continuing to increase in MLS.

How much is the league’s improvement down to being able to bring in big-name foreign signings like David Beckham and Thierry Henry?

I’m not sure that the quality of the league is attracting players like Beckham and Henry. I think they are looking at the league and looking at how it has grown from its early beginnings. And of course North America is regarded as a nice place to live. Hopefully, we will begin to attract younger players at the beginning and peaks of their careers as the league evolves.

At Vancouver, you brought in Jay Demerit. Do you see yourself spending more money on these types of players?

When you live in a cap world, you have to be very cautious about how you spend your money. What we would like moving forward is to determine which players on our current roster we can build a team around, and look where we need to upgrade, and that is what we are doing. 

We will add players but not randomly. If there is a centre-back available and we feel we have enough coverage, then we would not necessarily pick him up.  We need to have a shopping list type system, knowing what we are looking for and ticking it off along the way.

Moving away from the Whitecaps briefly, what are your memories of your time in England with Reading?

I was there from the age of 14, so I was very young and impressionable. If I had to summarise it, I was able to eat, sleep, and drink the game on a daily basis being an apprentice professional. Because of that, I did much more there than I would have been able to do here in terms of the opportunity to be completely immersed in a professional club.

Beyond football, I was also able to mature much faster because I was away from my family and had to fend for myself. The whole experience was an education, maybe not a formal one but an education in life which has worked well for me.

Last season, Reading narrowly missed out on promotion back to the Premier League. Do you still keep up with results and if so, how do you think the club have progressed since your time there?

Yes I do, I actually keep up with them every weekend in fact. In terms of the club, I think that the venue they have is certainly consistent with what you would expect from a Premiership side and I wish them all the success, especially considering I spent five years with them.

Having been involved in football for so long, you must have many memories. What are some of your career highlights so far?

Winning the NASL Soccer Bowl Championship in 1979 was up there but not just for the win itself. The way the city reacted was incredible – there were 100,000 people in Vancouver to welcome us home.

Another was our MLS home opener against Canadian rivals Toronto FC on March 19 this year; the return of top flight soccer in Vancouver. Internationally, I have fond memories of going to the Olympic Games in 1984 - losing to Brazil in the quarterfinals - and going to the World Cup in 1986. 

Stephen Hart is now in charge of the Canadian team. What is the status of the national side?

They are currently in the midst of the initial stages in World Cup qualifying and the success they are having is to be expected because the countries they are playing against are smaller and we should be consistently beating them and for the most part, we have been. 

As far as qualifying for 2014, if the players all band together and realize that it will require a concerted effort by all, I think they have as good a chance as anyone. If you look at Mexico and the US, you would probably concede that they were going to qualify. However, there is another instant qualification spot which we should be vying for. 

Can you see Canada progressing in the way the USA have?

I don’t know if we can compare ourselves to America. I think what we need to do is figure out a way of adopting a player development model that will provide a pathway for young players to reach the top. This would allow them to play with and against the best players. I think our current residency program alongside British Columbia Soccer’s high performance league is doing well in that regard.

If Montreal did the same, if Toronto did the same, and we had the rest of Canada covered so that players could go to the nearest development program, we would definitely see the fruits of our labour over time. It is important to remember that development is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Finally, what are Vancouver’s hopes and ambitions for the next few years?

I would like to see us continue to grow our club off the field; specifically, in terms of fan base, sponsorship and maximizing our new venue. Also, I would like to see us become more competitive and start to make the playoffs on a regular basis. All of the above are intertwined and equally important to the next when working towards being a successful club.

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