Never go into the archives of Maple Leaf Forever! without expert supervision. Any post written before about 2016 is pretty much unreadable. But this morning I dove into the crap to get a particular nugget: my first visit to Langford’s ironically-named City Centre Park in May 2010 to watch the Victoria Highlanders host the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s in the USL PDL season opener.
A lot has changed in nine years. For one thing I ripped Russell Teibert, who was a year or so from becoming Canadian Soccer Jesus. Both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps U-23s folded then came back as completely different setups. Also, the ironically-named City Centre Park is almost unrecognizable. 2010’s aluminum-bleachered main stand now has beautiful purple seats with “PFC” picked out in white and wouldn’t look out of place in England’s League Two. The “Bear Mountain Stadium” sign now says “Westhills Stadium” (though it is otherwise exactly the same, which is fun). The neighbourhood has built up; a weirdly obscure tree-shrouded ground nestled in with the industry and parking lots is now in a fast-growing part of Langford that’ll probably be 50% condos by the time Noah Verhoeven gets his testimonial.
But a few things are the same. Quoting myself:
God, what a fantastic place to watch a soccer game! The sun is shining, the birds are tweeting, there’s a little man-made lake at the east end of the park which is simultaneously incredibly twee and incredibly cool. The plastic pitch is still new enough that the game is quite enjoyable on the surface, security guards aren’t uptight bag-checking assholes, and the fans have the good-spirited nature of people who are watching a semi-professional soccer game in the middle of nowhere and just having a whale of a time.
[. . .]
3-2 Victoria stood as the final, and the better team won. But it was a good contest and one that involved some pretty good fans from the Highlanders, who sang and made noise that you associate with a far higher level than USL PDL. Even the soccer parents in the grandstand were more involved in the game than your stereotypical Canadian fan, applauding and following events with visible agitation. I know there are travel issues, and stadium issues, and all sorts of issues in the way of further growth. But if the Victoria Highlanders keep this up and they’re not in the second division within five years, it’ll be a disgrace.
It took nine years, and they’re not the Highlanders, and it’s actually the first division. And security checks bags now, though they’re still human beings rather than dicks with badges and let us bring in cookies for Clare Rustad1. Otherwise 2010 Ben would be pretty happy with how those paragraphs worked out.
In April 2019 Langford hosted another opener, when Pacific FC welcomed Halifax for the second game in the history of the Canadian Premier League. The fans are still fun and, like the stadium, mostly new. In 2010 the approximately 2,000 people at that game were considered a massive success. In 2019 official attendance was 5,154, which as far as I can tell is the best-attended soccer event on Vancouver Island since the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup2. And those 5,154 men, women, and children were bouncing. The Lake Side Buoys tailgate was not only visited but largely manned by people I’d never met in the PDL days. Many of them packed into the bustling general admissions supporter stands where they cheered, shot the shit, and had such a great time that the organized chanting, for all the numbers and enthusiasm, was drowned out by spontaneous fun.
Fans lined up in the sun for merchandise and refreshment; the fish-and-chips guy probably put his kids through college. They went berserk for Hendrik Starostzik, the 3. Liga veteran who not only scored the first goal in club history but showed that Albert Watson-like ability to impose his will aerially despite not being that tall and has “fan favourite” written all over him in pen. They crowded in the general admission area, or congregated in the very handsome beer garden, or hunkered down in the new seating, howling at the fouls, cheering the passes into space, and were engaged for all 90 minutes; when the Pacific players sprinted over to the supporters after the final whistle to celebrate their win it felt completely natural despite both groups having literally just met3. It wasn’t all perfect; there were not one but two appalling DJs vomiting noise and queues for almost anything were long. The game-day experience needs some refinement. Oh well. When we have to search our memories for minor flaws in the name of balance, you did a good job.
Day one, for Pacific, was nigh-perfect. But we will need many, many more such days. You may have been surprised by that 2,000-strong USL PDL crowd at a lesser version of this stadium in 2019. The problem is they didn’t stay around. In their debut 2009 season the Highlanders’ averaged 1,734 fans per game. In 2010, 1,375, still fourth-best in the league. In 2011, 992, at which point they moved out of Langford into historic Royal Athletic Park near downtown Victoria. A more convenient stadium, attention-grabbing promotions like “supporter ownership,” and some preposterously cheap tickets brought attendance back to a high-water mark of 1,637 in 2013 but by then the business model had become completely unsustainable4.
PDL has big problems as a spectator league. The level of soccer is way below what the Canadian Premier League has shown. Media coverage and match-day operations comes from amateur enthusiasts. Probably most importantly, teams play only seven or eight home games in a season that lasts three months, then in the winter half the roster changes. It’s easy to enjoy a PDL game but really, really hard to form a lasting connection to a team. CanPL has none of these issues: Pacific FC is trying to build on more solid ground. But right now good seats are available across Westhills Stadium for the Wednesday night game against Valour. Even with the opening-day excitement over, momentum has to build.
The Highlanders would have been laughing had they brought 2,000 fans to every game; Pacific FC will need more than 5,154 every game to make money. This is why the City of Langford, the province of British Columbia, and BC Hydro are exploring how they can spend millions of dollars moving a hydro pole that prevents building stands on the north side of the ground5. Getting Westhills Stadium as ready as it was for opening day was a triumph of public works but, in five years, that stadium probably needs double the capacity it has today. There is ever-so-much to do.
Then again, think about how much was done to get to this point. Every word of this sentence deserves to be printed in bold: 5,154 fans just sold out a stadium in Langford and paid to watch a Vancouver Island soccer team play Halifax in a Canadian Premier League match. Three years ago nothing about that seemed possible. There was never going to be a Canadian Premier League, and if there was Halifax and Vancouver Island wouldn’t be in it, and if they were nobody would come. What we saw on Sunday was unbelievable. Every expectation was blown out of the water. The mountains we still have to climb don’t seem so tall today.
Terry Dunfield nailed it on the OneSoccer post-game show: “if you’re a young boy or girl watching this, how do you not play soccer tomorrow?” Or watch it, for that matter.
- I promise, it was not weird.
- The 2014 friendly between the Highlanders and Rangers had an announced crowd of “more than 5,000,” and if you want 5,000 people in Centennial Stadium you have to include people watching from the top of the Williams Building.
- To put in perspective how new a team Pacific FC is, they played the same number of former Highlanders (one, Ryan McCurdy) as HFX Wanderers did (Peter Schaale).
- All attendance figures from the venerable Kenn.com.
- And also prevents the TV cameras from getting high enough, as OneSoccer viewers found on Sunday.