Even at 55, Carl Valentine resembles a wide-eyed tyke attending his first summer soccer camp.
Gigantic smile. Endless energy. Non-stop chatter with the kids and parents.
The most recognized player in Vancouver Whitecaps’ history was at Marshall Field this week for one of the Major League Soccer (MLS) team’s Play Like a Pro Camps.
The Manchester, England product was a 20-year-old roadrunner rookie winger when the Whitecaps claimed the 1979 North American League title. He fell in love with Vancouver and became a Canadian citizen in 1983.
The Caps were bigger than the Canucks back in the day, attracting close to a million adoring fans to a victory parade downtown. Valentine’s stunning smile and magic down the wings made him a player to watch.
“I’ve been blessed to find Vancouver and I was blessed to be popular with the fans and it continues to grow,” said Valentine, who was nicknamed Chalkie by his Oldham Athletic manager Jimmy Frizzel because he stayed out wide.
“My role now is just being out in the community and selling this great brand, which is an easy sell. I’m having the time of my life. I’m not coaching or playing and I’m just loving it.”
The father of two daughters and one son spent 13 years with the Vancouver 86ers and was a natural choice to join the Caps as a paid ambassador. He’s excited about the Caps’ evolution. They won six games in their MLS debut three years ago, upped that to 11 wins last year and were 9-5-5 and third in the Western Conference going into a Saturday game versus the L.A. Galaxy.
“The first year in the MLS, we had sellouts and it was new,” he said. “We were the worst team in the league. The second year, we did better. We got a new coaching staff and made the playoffs but weren’t that entertaining.
“And this year, we’re capturing imagination. We’re the highest scoring team in the MLS, we’re winning games with flair, we’ve got Camilo (Sanvezzo) scoring magical goals and you can see wherever you go now, it’s getting infectious, this Whitecap momentum.”
Valentine said the Caps are coming together and hold a great blend of youth and experience. A bunch of them went salmon fishing in West Vancouver on Thursday. Earlier this season, Honduran defender Johnny Leveron stopped Scottish striker Kenny Miller in a team table tennis tournament in Kansas City. Head coach Martin Rennie was knocked out in the semifinals.
Kids in Vernon don’t know the names of many players, but the Caps are doing their part to change that culture. Valentine said the partnerships the franchise is building is crucial to success.
“Whitecaps can’t do it on their own. Just because we’re in the MLS and we’ve got a big brand out there doesn’t mean that we can achieve all the goals we want. The owners want us to be an asset in the community, not just in the Lower Mainland, but in B.C. I’ve got seven visits to the Okanagan and I’m gonna bring a player up every time.
“Last year, we had Camilo and Darren Mattocks and Gershan Koffie and Omar Salgado, high-profile players and it’s important because it creates dreams. We know how hard it is to be a professional. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden we’re going to have thousands and thousands of professionals playing at all different levels, but it does enhance dreams of these kids. And it gives them an opportunity to touch and feel and ask questions to professional soccer players.”
Camilo, a Brazlian striker with moves like Jagger, leads the MLS in scoring with a dozen snipes and will represent the Caps as the league all-stars face AS Roma Wednesday, July 31 in Kansas City.
Tom Heinemann, a 6-foot-4 striker, was also a big hit at the Vernon camp. Heinemann, a 26-year-old St. Louis product, scored three times with the Columbus Crew last year. He’s high on Camilo, who at $200,000, is among highest paid Caps.
“He’s on great form right now,” said Heinemann, a non-starter who makes $47,500. “He’s a great player. He is very, very deadly on set pieces and it’s a very nice weapon for our team, to be able to execute on set pieces and get goals that way. He’s a good finisher, he’s quick and he’s motivated. He works very hard.”
Heinemann is a story in that he was a walk-on at Rockhurst University in Kansas City before enjoying some success in Charleston and Raleigh in the United League. He has played in seven games, getting one goal this year.
“I always look at it as everyday, fighting and competing to get time. Every player on the roster wants to play and it’s a privilege to play so that’s my focus and goal is getting on the team.”
Heinemann, whose wife, Katrina, is a nurse in Vancouver, loves sharing his experiences and interacting with kids at camps, something he missed growing up in St. Louis. He was modest when asked about his strengths as a striker.
“People probably say different things but I’m really blessed to be in this position and I thank God to be in this position. My faith is a big part of who I am and is very important to me.”
He devotes some of his time to Athletes in Action, a Christian sports ministry that has active chapters in each of the 19 MLS centres.