John Furlong loves big projects. The 61-year-old is two years removed from his tenure in charge of organizing the Vancouver Winter Olympics and now he has embraced another extended challenge: transforming the fledgling Vancouver Whitecaps into a West Coast sports institution.
Furlong signed on as executive chairman of the Whitecaps in April, the surprise culmination of a casual conversation started over a dinner he shared with team owner Greg Kerfoot about six weeks earlier. But Furlong's title is too staid to really underline his sense of mission.
Chief evangelist would be more appropriate.
"We all want to live a life of significance. I feel this is a way to continue to live a life that matters, to do something that matters," said Furlong last week in an interview at the team's Gastown headquarters, the Burrard Inlet and North Shore Mountains framed in the boardroom's windows.
Furlong and Kerfoot struck an immediate connection on a shared vision of the Whitecaps' future, one that would unfold on a grand scale, one that critics might call grandiose.
The club envisions itself as a soccer power, both in Major League Soccer and beyond, particularly in the CONCACAF Champions League. Beyond the club's own results, Vancouver and its extensive youth system aims to become the main supplier of Canada's national-team players. And all the way along the Whitecaps want to be the central force that helps send the sport of soccer into a dizzying ascent in British Columbia – and across Canada.
"We want to be that franchise that people look at and say, 'I'm with them,' " said Furlong.
The second-year MLS team had giant goals from the start, but last year it imploded. An expansion year that began with a smashing victory and talk of making the playoffs ended when Vancouver concluded its opening campaign as the worst team in the league.
An off-season overhaul, starting with new coach Martin Rennie, has transformed the team into something a little closer to that vision. The Whitecaps on Saturday scored a last-second victory at home against the league's top team, the conference rival San Jose Earthquakes. San Jose went up early on Vancouver but the Whitecaps clawed their way back and striker Eric Hassli came off the bench to score the winner with seconds to spare.
This month – 38 years after the Whitecaps started play in the old North American Soccer League – will be a key 31 days in the history of the club. With the Vancouver Canucks out of the playoffs unexpectedly early, and the B.C. Lions not set to emerge from their off-season until June, the Whitecaps are the only pro game in town.
May has already begun as well as it could. The win against San Jose further secures the Whitecaps' strong position in the Western Conference standing: at 5-2-2, they are securely in fourth out of nine teams. And last Wednesday, Vancouver soundly beat Edmonton in the first of a two-game semi-final in the Canadian championship. The second match is this Wednesday, with the aggregate-score winner to face either Toronto or Montreal in the final.
Vancouver badly wants the trophy. The 2012-13 Champions League windows for games are already clearly marked on the Whitecaps' calendar – if they can make it.
The team fell short against Toronto last year and Toronto managed to propel itself all the way to the Champions League semi-final, stoking great envy in Vancouver, even as Canada's first MLS club has stumbled out of the gate this year with the worst start ever to an MLS campaign.
After the San Jose win, the entire Whitecaps organization gave the near-20,000 fans at BC Place ample credit.
Furlong, at the back of a small press conference room before Rennie spoke to reporters, was almost giddy with how the crowd had urged on the Whitecaps and "terrified" the visitors.
Rennie – a coach who Furlong describes as "part coach, part scientist" – said the fans helped bring BC Place "to life."
"Hopefully the fans left happy and they come back soon, ready for the next one," said Rennie after the game.
Last year's season of losing hasn't helped with attendance in Vancouver. In 2011, the Whitecaps had an average attendance of 20,412, third in the 18-team MLS, with many of the games at the temporary, and outdoor, Empire Field in east Vancouver. Now fully in BC Place, attendance over five homes games has averaged 18,615, sixth best in the now 19-team MLS.
Season tickets fell to 13,000 from 15,500.
Only one game, the opener against Montreal, was a sellout.
In the interview last week, Furlong recalled one of the things Kerfoot told him, ideas that convinced the Olympic veteran to come to soccer. Since the Games, Furlong has done a lot of public speaking, making money, giving talks to corporations, along the way turning down offers to be CEO himself, as well as many entrees to enter politics.
Furlong's job now is to commune the vision of Kerfoot, a man who made millions in technology but who stands resolutely out of the spotlight.
After a brutal first year, Kerfoot has now coaxed on board one of B.C.'s chief dreamers – the man who helped lead the Winter Olympics to sparkling success.