I still say, on a regular basis, that I’ve never had a regular job. I’m still doing something I love doing, working for the Vancouver Whitecaps in my hometown. Even though the NASL 50th anniversary event is during our MLS season, I’m thinking of going because these kinds of festivities are a great opportunity to connect with guys from that era.
It is a bit of a cliché to say that Bob Lenarduzzi’s life of soccer has come full circle. The native of Vancouver, British Columbia, played in the NASL for the Whitecaps, was a Canadian international (47 caps) and an early inductee into his country’s soccer hall of fame. Now he occupies an executive position for Vancouver’s team in MLS.
Early in his career, however, Lenarduzzi took a novel route to playing soccer in North America. At the tender age of 15 he left home and took up residence with Reading in England, playing in 67 first-team games from 1970-76.
“For me, it was heavenly playing at Reading,” he said. “I was there five seasons, and during the latter two I’d come back on loan to the Whitecaps for the summers. I would have been coming home anyway, but this way I got paid to come home. It was fantastic. It only happened because there was a team in Vancouver. I was the beneficiary of a perfect storm as the NASL started up.
“I can honestly say that in those two seasons, when we were getting small crowds, I wasn’t sure what the future would hold. I made the decision after the second year to not go back to England, I wanted to look ahead to what life would look like. I left for England at 15, I left school, and I was thinking about what if doesn’t go the right way, what’s the fall back? I was concerned but I kept plugging away.”
Lenarduzzi joined the Whitecaps full-time for the 1976 NASL season, and across 11 years with the club he played in a league-record 312 games overall, as a rugged defender (though he did play all 11 positions during his pro career).
“I was literally living the dream,” he said. “We as players were not paying attention to viability and longevity. I look at it as five-year cycles — from 1974 to 1979 was an unbelievable ascent. We won Soccer Bowl in ’79 and there were 100,000 people to greet us in Vancouver. Then five years later we were done. If you had said to me in ’79 that we wouldn’t be around, I would have laughed in your face and said no way. But at that time there was no foundation. The end of the league came as a big surprise. As players you don’t always have the benefit of information.”
For the Whitecaps and Lenarduzzi the pinnacle was probably that Soccer Bowl-winning season in 1979. It was a long, tortuous road that ultimately ended in triumph. But it wasn’t easy. In the opening game of its two-game series against Johan Cruyff and the Los Angeles Aztecs, the Whitecaps lost, 3-2 in a shootout.
“We had to go home, win the 90-minute game [1-0] and then the minigame if we wanted to advance. I remember walking out of the tunnel at Empire Stadium and the place was packed [32,375]. Because the game was sold out so far in advance it was live on TV and the whole province was into it.”
In the minigame (effectively a game after the game) Kevin Hector converted a cross from Carl Valentine and the Whitecaps faced the Cosmos next. In the first game of the series, New York’s Carlos Alberto was shown a red card (meaning he would miss the return game) and Vancouver traveled east after winning, 2-0. What came next was a seminal encounter in the history of the NASL. The Cosmos won the 90-minute game, in a shootout; but the Whitecaps captured the minigame, 1-0, leaving the teams tied on aggregate goals, 3-3. Another shootout ensued and when the dust finally settled on the three-and-a-half-hour marathon, the Whitecaps were headed to Soccer Bowl, where they defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“For a kid from Vancouver to be a part of that was amazing,” Lenarduzzi said.