Lack of stars doesn’t stop Whitecaps from drawing fans to MLS games

VANCOUVER – For the second time this season one of the marquee teams in Major League Soccer will play against the Vancouver Whitecaps without their superstar player.

David Beckham won’t be in the lineup Saturday afternoon when the L.A. Galaxy take the pitch against the Whitecaps at Empire Field. Beckham, the former Manchester United midfielder and English captain, has been suspended after receiving his eighth yellow card of the season.

In May, a knee injury kept Thierry Henry out of the New York Red Bulls lineup when they tied the Whitecaps 1-1 in Vancouver.

“Our fans for sure would have loved to see both of them,” said Bob Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps president. “Those kinds of things are out of our control.

“We need to accept that’s a hazard of the game.”

A crowd of over 26,000, the largest of the season, is expected for the match against the Galaxy.

“We were at close to 23,000 before Beckham picked up his yellow card,” said Lenarduzzi. “It’s not like we haven’t been able to sell tickets.”

A crowd of 21,000 turned out to watch the Red Bulls without Henry.

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“To me, the encouraging aspect is people want to watch the game,” said Lenarduzzi. “They’d love to see the marquee players, but it hasn’t stopped people from purchasing tickets.”

The expansion Whitecaps are last in MLS with a 2-10-9 record but their average attendance of 20,008 in nine home matches leaves them third in the league. Empire Field’s capacity is 27,500.

The Seattle Sounders lead the league in average attendance with 37,189, followed by the Galaxy at 22,829.

Toronto FC is fourth at 19,977.

Lenarduzzi believes the figures show Vancouver fans are attracted by the game, not just the stars on some teams.

“We have made some huge strides to a point where people are coming out to see the game,” he said. “If there happens to be the marquee players, it certainly generates a lot more interest, but I’m not sure that’s the sole reason people are coming out.

“It has become a soccer crowd. People are coming back because they like being part of that atmosphere.”

The Whitecaps will leave Empire Field in October and play their final three games of the season in B.C. Place Stadium, which is undergoing US$565 million in renovations, including a retractable roof.

The soccer configuration at B.C. Place is for 20,000 seats.

The Whitecaps sold around 16,500 season tickets for their inaugural MLS season.

The Whitecaps may be enjoying a honeymoon this year, but Lenarduzzi knows the team must be competitive in 2012 if it hopes to keep drawing support.

“This season I think we have a grace period because we are an expansion team,” he said. “Beyond this, we need to start showing drastic improvement.

“What we want to do come the end of the season, regardless of where we finish, is determine what our core of players is that will carry us forward to next year.”

One player the Whitecaps might add to their lineup is Keven Aleman, a member of Canada’s under-17 national team. It’s believed he may be the future considerations in the trade that send Terry Dunfield from Vancouver to Toronto FC.

Lenarduzzi refused comment.

“Part of our deal for Dunfield to go there was future consideration,” he said. “Right now that’s exactly what is it, future considerations.”

Toronto released Aleman in May. He had refused to sign a letter of commitment to the Reds because he wanted to try out for teams in Europe.

In other news, the Whitecaps have added goalkeeper coach Marius Rovde and physiotherapy consultant Rick Celebrini, the club announced.

A native of Trondheim, Norway, Rovde played professionally in his home country, as well as in Scotland and Wales.

His coaching career includes spells in Norway and Scotland before serving as director of goalkeepers with Trinidad & Tobago’s soccer federation from 2008 until this year. He also worked as head goalkeeper coach at Trinidad & Tobago’s Joe Public FC.

Celebrini played 31 games with the Whitecaps from 1992 to 1996 when the club was known as the as Vancouver 86ers.

Since retiring as a player and becoming a physiotherapist, the Burnaby, B.C., native has worked with Canada’s alpine ski team, the Canadian Soccer Association, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, and the NHL Players Association.

His client list includes Canadian NBA star Steve Nash.