Portland beckons, and a look back at Rochester

2 10 2009

The Whitecaps head to Portland for this Sunday’s second leg of the USL-1 semifinal, with the ‘Caps up 2-1.  In anticipation of my trip down there and the ensuing diary that will be featured on whitecapsfc.com, I give you my last road trip diary – September 2006 when the ‘Caps went to Rochester and claimed the USL-1 Championship.

(Note: these are from my saved Word docs rather than the archived webpages, so they are unedited and thus may contain some grammatical errors)

PART I

Welcome to our little ‘Road to Rochester’ diary.  Call it a blog, a journal, a diary, whatever you like – the point is, we want to share our trip with you the fan.  After all, not everyone can make it out to Rochester to see this momentous game.  So perhaps you can live vicariously through us as we travel across the country with only a shoe-string budget and a passion for Blue and White.  So visit this page often, as I will make as many updates as I can of our trip.  Gotta love the Internet!

Quick side note: be sure to watch the match live at the RIO on BROADWAY on Saturday at 4pm PST.  Tickets are only a minimum $5 donation to KidSport and you get to dress up and cheer on the Caps amongst other fans.  We were at the RIO this morning taking pictures for the daily ‘24 Hours’ so be sure to pick up a copy.

First, a little introduction is in order.  Our starting lineup consists of Paul Ruscoe, Account Representative for the Whitecaps.  Paul moved over here from London, England and has made it his mandate to pass along his passion for the sport and love for Tottenham Hotspur.  Justin Flett, Ticket Operations Coordinator, came on board in dramatic fashion.  An on-again-off-again fence rider, he showed up at work on Thursday morning declaring he is indeed coming along.  Oh, and don’t dare insult Zidane in his presence.  Matt Williams, an Ontario native, was an intern with us throughout the summer, handling various game-day operations roles as well as setting up our street team.  He knew virtually nothing about soccer when he arrived, but left with a love of all things Whitecaps.

Finally, my name is Ryan McKee, Manager of New Media and your host on this journey.

We first concocted this plan to see the game live on Monday afternoon.  In between phone calls, emails and web updates, we figured we just had to be there.  Our first plan was to go with the cheapest flight possible.  That had us leaving out of Seattle on Friday morning.  Cheap flight – Great! – and then we found out why.  Turns out you have to fly to Atlanta and then transfer to Rochester.  Atlanta??  Nine hours later, we’d be there.  Other flights had us going to Los Angeles and Dallas before ending up in Rochester.  Apparently the Seattle-Honolulu-Cancun-Rochester flight was sold out.  We did find one that made a little sense: Seattle-Boise-Minneapolis-Rochester.  But Justin shot that down saying ‘the more times you take off and land, the more chances you have of dying’.  Evidently, he’s not a fan of planes.

About this time, our collective brain power turned a 40 watt light bulb on.  Bing!  Matt goes to a college in St. Catherines, Ontario!  A quick visit to MapQuest revealed that he is only a few hours drive from Rochester.  Plus, he is only 40 minutes outside of Hamilton.  If he could pick us up, then we only need to worry about our flights.  Fortunately, Westjet had a nice seat sale going to Hamilton on Friday at 7am.  The way back is pretty steep and overall it’s considerably more than the Seattle flights, but it’s far more direct and it brings Matt into the picture.

I sent Matt an email and he called me, giddy as a schoolgirl (a 6-4 muscular schoolgirl, mind you).  He would pick us up, take us to Rochester and we would be on our way.  Our trip was officially under way.  Even after missing out on a free trip to Whistler you could not take the smile off my face.  (I helped out at the Vancouver Sun’s Raise a Reader, was selected as a prize winner at the wrap-up event, but was not there to claim it as I had to get back to work.  And no I’m not bitter at all).

PART II

I’m typing out this at 3:30 AM on Saturday morning as my 3 compatriots are nestled all snug in their beds while visions of a USL Championship dance through their heads.  It’s been a long day to say the least.  Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

I wake up at 4:48 AM, a full two minutes before my alarm is set to go off.  Evidently, my anticipation cannot be interrupted by an unconscious slumber.  After a shower, I venture off to pick up Justin.  He calls me while I’m driving and he’s either doing his best Barry White impersonation or he clearly should not be woken up at this hour.  Paul is next on the docket and he is the anti-Justin.  Big smile, chipper and full of vim – I’m not sure if he’s gone to sleep yet.

We are now at the airport and proceeding through security.  Paul has a tougher time than us and must pass a thorough (and I mean thorough) pat-down before he is allowed to move ahead.  Also, his keg of hair gel is called into question and quite frankly, I don’t know how he’d survive the weekend if they didn’t let it go.

I should also give a quick hello to Marj at the currency exchange booth next to Gate A.  I mentioned that I work for the Vancouver Whitecaps and she immediately knew about our Championship aspirations on Saturday.  She told me stories of old Empire Stadium, Crazy George and of course, Bobby Lenarduzzi.  She assured me that although she will be working Saturday evening, she will make sure the pub across the hall has the game on (particularly the TV that she could catch a glimpse of from her booth).  She wished us luck and even gave me an extra two dollars on my currency exchange.  Boy I wish everyone in the world had this woman’s spirit!

We are about to board the plane and I notice a purse left behind.  I mention it to the airport staff and they proceed to peer through it to find out who it belongs to.  Moments later, a woman emerges from our plane and claims her lost purse.  Paul leans in to me and says, ‘that sure wouldn’t happen at Heathrow.’  More importantly, our karma index is steadily climbing.

The plane ride is uneventful, highlighted by a skim through Justin’s 4-4-2 magazine, a picture of Paul catching flies and an Ellen show on TV (listen, Ellen is the best thing out there on daytime TV.  Besides, Justin was watching it too).  We have 4 hours to burn before Matt can pick us up, so we decide to play a little footy in the parking lot and then catch a cab to a restaurant.  The highlight of the meal, other than the food and bevies, is clearly the debates.  We cover just about everything soccer related, from who we think will take Sebrango’s place in the starting lineup (all I can say is I called it) and if a salary cap system would ever work in the Premiership.

Matt arrives and we are off to Rochester.  We hit customs and somehow our officer just happens to be a former footballer himself, having played with Tomasz Radzinski.  We share a few quick stories and we’re soon into the United States.  Karma boost number two!

Before reaching the hotel, we stop at the Rochester airport to pick up our dear friend and coworker, Lindsay.  Her plane is delayed so we grab a mini soccer ball from my bag and proceed to boot it around the airport, giving our best impression of Ronaldinho.  Although our exploits generated the odd disapproving look, most people were happy to kick an errant ball back to us.

By midnight, Lindsay arrives and we are on our way to the hotel.  We drive by a darkened PAETEC Park, and there’s an instant hush in the vehicle – anticipation, a journey has found its destination.

The hotel looks fantastic and we’ve just received word that 70 fellow Whitecaps supporters have made the trip and are shacking up here.  Should make for a festive weekend, indeed.  We also ensure that we are not staying on the same floor as the players – after all, four guys on a road trip can get a little loud at times and the last thing we want to do is wake any player up.  We go downstairs to join some other coworkers for a nightcap.  Many clinks of glasses and football stories ensue, and there is no doubt that this will be yet another chapter in the book of Whitecaps lore.  Looking across the room, I cannot help but feel a little humbled.  My day started with a lady sharing with me her Whitecaps memories and finished a few thousand miles away hearing a new set of stories.  They may as well have been the same story, it would not matter.  The essence and beauty is in the people that tell it.

So now I sit here, 4:30 in the morning in a dark hotel room, eager for my story to begin, for my very own Whitecaps chapter to be written and told.

PART III

My apologies for those eagerly awaiting the next blog entry (mom, dad).  As you can imagine, there was nary a moment to get on my laptop on Saturday and when I got home Sunday night, I crashed like a baby.  Fortunately I kept a notebook the whole way!

Saturday morning – today’s the day!

Our day gets off roughly on time thanks to Lindsay’s wake up call (we told her to be up and ready for 8AM and then we proceeded to sleep in until her 8:30 call).  We’re clearly a sight for sore eyes, each of us in need of a long shower, some coffee and a TicTac.  Matt and Justin somehow shared a double bed together and they both spent the night recreating the scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Paul contorted himself into an Origami Swan so that he could turn a chair and a luggage stand into a makeshift sleeping vessel.  That left me with an entire bed to myself, probably because I was up all night typing.

We try our best to look presentable, pick up Lindsay and get on our way.  We also grab ‘Bro’ for the trip.  Bro is the distant cousin of Wilson from Cast Away.  A mini Umbro soccer ball, we’ve grown quite fond of Bro on this trip and are now convinced he is our good luck charm and mascot, and thus must be involved in every aspect of our trip.  His trip consists of being dribbled through virtually every building and sidewalk we traverse.

We are determined to visit Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Now I know this is a soccer trip, but how many times are you going to be in upstate New York and a few hours from such a famous sports shrine?  Interestingly, the news director from AM1280 in Rochester read my blog and emailed me a note to call into their 10AM soccer show.  Leading up to the call, they were a lot of shots taken at Vancouver and callers were predicting and easy 3-0 victory (the irony!).  So I was expecting these radio guys to try and rile me up a little and give me a hard time.  But in truth, they were more than gracious and respectful.  I answered a few questions about the keys to the game, why Gjertsen is so good and how I feel coming into the match.  Even a guest from the Stampeders (the Southsiders of the Rhinos, if you will) invited me to come by their section during the game.

They also informed us that the Soccer Hall of Fame was only about half an hour south of Cooperstown and that we should check it out.  Especially since the esteemed Bob Lenarduzzi was enshrined there.  So now we had to really book it to fit it all in!

Cooperstown is a beautiful town.  You feel like you are taking a step back in time.  The old-fashioned colonial style buildings give off that ‘small town America’ vibe.  Trees line every road and pathway and the onset of autumn has blanketed the sidewalks with leaves.  The Hall of Fame itself is truly a worthy shrine to America’s Pastime.  Baseball might be the best sport at honoring and cherishing its past, and Cooperstown is its epicenter.  Justin was in his glory and even Paul, not a fan of baseball per se, was impressed.  With that said, I’ll bet a lot of interesting people have come through the turnstiles here.  However, I also bet that they’ve never seen a guy like Paul come through wearing a Whitecaps jersey on top and a Whitecaps flag wrapped around his body as a skirt!

A few hours and a few souvenirs later, we are back on the road.  Unfortunately, we aren’t going to make it to the soccer hall of fame.  If we had known about it ahead of time, we would have planned to leave earlier (by telling Lindsay we were leaving at 7AM, so she could inevitably call us at 7:30).  But we just can’t risk missing a second of the Championship game.  It sounds like a good Rhino turnout, so the boys are going to need all the support we can muster.

Working on 7 hours sleep in two days, I’m starting to feel the inevitable ‘crash’.  So on the way back to Rochester, I crawl into the back of the SUV and attempt a little shut-eye.  Bad idea.  Feeling every bump of the road, I quickly felt nauseated and had to return to my seat.  I’ll just have to push through it.

Fortunately nothing beats sleepiness like a little karaoke.  Paul has a mental library of songs to chant and sing during a Whitecaps match.  Most of them consist of two lines sung over and over again and they all mimic a famous song or kid’s tune.  But they’re catchy, they’re original (sort of) and by golly, they’re going to be sung tonight.  Some of them leave a little to be desired though, so we instead start flipping through the radio stations trying to remix classic songs into Whitecaps chants.  A few of our best:

(To the tune of “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra)

Start spreading the news

We’re winning tonight

We’re taking the USL Championship

From New York, New York

We’re gonna wake up

In the city with hardly any sleep

To find we’re the King of the Hill

Top of the Heap…

(To the tune of “You’re in my Heart” by Rod Stewart)

You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul

All we need is just one goal

We cheer you on to the very end

You’re in my soul

(To the tune of Red Red Wine, by UB40)

Bulge the twine

It’s up to you

Bulge the Twine

Ya make me feel so fine

Keep up the scoring

All of dee time

Okay, the last one needs some work

We get back to our hotel with just enough time to change into even more Whitecaps gear and head to the Stadium.  I quickly rub my 100 Mile House 1992 Division 1 Championship Trophy for good luck.  Here we go…

We’re at the stadium.  An interesting stadium, to say the least.  It has a very wide open style to it.  Perfect for crowd management, the food and drink booths are well back of the actual stadium bowl.  I’m not sure if they have the atmosphere that our fans would have brought (but I’m biased), but they do have some great features.  First, the video screen at the one end of the field is gorgeous.  Crystal clear and bright.  The presentation was impressive, with fireworks blasting off as the Star Spangled Banner was being sung.  Finally, the stands are all made of metal instead of concrete, so when the Rhinos come on the field, everybody stomps their feet and it sounds like a real stampede.  Great idea.  Maybe we could all yell ‘whooooish’ at Swangard and it would sound like a giant wave.  Okay okay, so there’s a reason I’m not in game presentation.

We’re sitting in a corner section close to the pitch with all of the parents, wives, girlfriends and kids so it was nice to see some familiar and supportive faces.  Paul was clearly the ring leader, as he spent the entire evening chanting and singing and hollering.  The only time he shut his mouth was during the singing of O Canada – but he has no excuse as he’s lived here for 6 months now.  One particular Rhinos fan was trying to yell back at us and rile us but to no avail.  He was pretty much stuck on chants of ‘USA. USA’.  He even tried to mock us with ‘hey, where are your farms?’  I’m not even sure what that means.

Speaking of the fans, they were tremendous.  They are a loyal bunch that weathered the conditions and tried valiantly to will their team to a comeback.  We met the Stampeders at halftime as well, and they are just great.  They’ll have to make a trip up this way next season so we can reciprocate the hospitality.

I won’t go into the details of the game too much.  I’m sure most of you watched it, listened to it or read about it.  But I will say it unfolded exactly as you would hope.  It started rather predictably, with the Rhinos fired up and the Whitecaps a little tentative.  The Rhinos really needed to score in the first few minutes or else risk a turn of the tide (whooooish! – I’m terrible).  Despite the pouring rain, wet clothes, and trembling bodies (except Lindsay who took her hotel blanket to the stadium), we stood and yelled throughout the entire game.  When the momentum turned, we knew it would be for good.  The first goal at the end of the half could not have come at a better time.  I think I broke my finger banging on the Canada flag (thanks again Andrew!) draped around the railing.  When the second goal was scored, we were ecstatic and resolved to feverishly watch the clock.  The third goal was pure bliss.  Matondo took his shirt off after he scored – a brilliant act of solidarity for the suspended Eddie Sebrango.  Better yet, Paul was able to unleash this gem, with authority:

(To the tune of “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin)

When the ball’s in the goal

It’s not Shearer or Cole

It’s Matondo

We must have sung that song 75 times over the final 5 minutes.

When the game was final, pure elation ensued.  Bro was a ball of joy.  Not a dry eye could be found on faces of the parents and wives, and I doubt it had anything to do with the rain.  The team jumped around and hugged and then made their way to our corner to hug their loved ones and shake our hands.

We ventured to where the player’s exit and after clapping for the losing Rochester side, we were there to further congratulate the players.  The building was empty by the time they came off the field, trophy in hand, but we were not missing a moment.  Steve Kindel shoved the trophy in Paul’s face and told him to kiss the Cup.  Something Paul will never forget, I’m sure.

Our next stop was a restaurant/bar where we had a section reserved for the team, staff and significant others.  It was really a special time, maybe the highlight of my trip.  For the first hour or so, it was just the staff members there.  It was a nice moment for all of us to reminisce on the season, share stories of the weekend so far and just celebrate the achievement together.  When the players came in, we greeted them with a standing ovation and they made their way around the room thanking us for coming.  The smiles on the face of Bob Lilley and Mike Toshack were priceless – these guys have worked so hard all season.

Joey Gjertsen handed us the trophy and said, ‘here, you guys take it for awhile’.  We took a few pictures, lifted it up and just soaked in the moment.  I was a little speechless at this point and I still can’t fully explain the radiance of that trophy.  I had goosebumps and I couldn’t stop looking at it.  The next few hours were filled with more hugs, more hand-shakes, more photos – the spirit in the room was unlike anything I’ve experienced.

This blog has really been special for me, as it’s forced me to constantly consider how I feel at every moment.  To stop and absorb the moments.  I have to say, I’m so happy for the staff here.  In my short time here at the Whitecaps, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most passionate and dedicated individuals.  That was never more evident than this weekend.  This is a special group, both on and off the field.

I’m also happy for the fans, most of whom have been Whitecaps supporters for far longer than me.  You know who you are.  You were packing the RIO and cheering throughout the match.  You were at a favourite pub with you best soccer mates.  You were glued to the radio, envisioning every play in your head.  You deserve this.  I thought of that old famous phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.  Well I say it takes a village to raise a championship.

Oh and one last thing.  For those of you that couldn’t see the match in person, we WILL host the Final one day and we WILL pack the joint and we WILL raise that trophy in front of our fans!  Now Goodnight.

Sunday morning arrives way too soon.  The anti-Christmas morning, if you will. The inevitability of a full day spent driving, flying, transferring and flying again has hit us.  We look like death.  And then I look across the room and say ‘we did it’ and a smile appears on everyone’s face.  That’s what winning does – it gives you a perpetual Get Out of Jail Free card for every cold, bad luck or bad day.  You can always say, ‘yeah but…’

Our road trip back to Hamilton was eventful – with the way the weekend has gone, how could it not?  Matt got a speeding ticket for driving 80 in a 65.  Oops, in case he wants to appeal it, let the record show that I was in the passenger seat and am sure he was doing 64.

We get to the border and just before approaching the officer I blurt out ‘these aren’t the droids you’re looking for’.  Puts everyone in stitches.  We then stop to see Niagara Falls and sit down at the Rainforest Café for a bite to eat.  After finding out that Tottenham Hotspur won this morning he declares it a perfect weekend.  I reply, ‘I know. Absolutely nothing went wrong this trip’ and immediately after (I kid you not), the restaurant went dark and a loud thunderous sound effect shot through the room.  A bit of foreshadowing indeed…

After leaving the restaurant, we realize that our plane is leaving in 75 minutes and we’re at least 40 minutes away.  We race up to the Hamilton airport and I run to the desk while the other guys grab our bags (Matt I forgot to say bye.  Bye).  She checks us in and we rush through security, with literally minutes to go.  In fact, the person has already announced the ‘final boarding call’ and is now saying something to the effect of ‘you must be here in the next minute or you risk missing the flight.’  I get through security, but while my bag is still being scanned (laptop inside), I run to the gate.  I point to Justin and Paul and plead with her to let us on.  The gate attendant wasn’t too happy, but allows us to proceed.  I run back to get my bag and run out onto the runway toward our plane.  A few dirty looks and sneers later, we are in our seats and on our way.  It seemed destined to end this way.  A frantic weekend, but we return as Champions.

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