NEXT GENERATION: How youth-led 'Vancouver Albion' is helping grow Whitecaps support
When the Vancouver Whitecaps hoisted the Voyageurs Cup in 2022, then 17-year-old Tobyn Rootman might have been the happiest person at BC Place.
Looking out at a sold-out crowd on a scorching summer night, Rootman soaked in the scenes as the club's supporters held their collective breath in maddening anticipation before celebrating in sheer jubilence as they took in that trophy-clinching moment: The Vancouver Whitecaps defeated Toronto FC on penalties and won their first Voyageurs Cup since 2015.
"I was in the front row for the first time, and I looked up and saw our biggest turnout to date,” Rootman told OneSoccer. “I saw so many people enjoying football. It touched me because I realized that we had created something extraordinary – a place where so many people could enjoy themselves and be who they are."
While Rootman stood among the various supporters groups that make up the Vancouver collection – the Vancouver Southsiders, Rain City Brigade, and South Sisters at BC Place among them – there also stood another, with a unique tale to tell: Formed in 2021, Vancouver Albion is MLS’s first youth-led supporters group. It has grown to roughly 150 members while featuring prominently amongst their peers, and in 2022, the club recognized them as an official supporters group, too.
While the Southsiders take their roots back to the Whitecaps’ pre-MLS days at Swangard Stadium, and several supporters groups across MLS brought prior culture to their clubs, this younger demographic has often been left on the sideline; they're too old for the 'kids activities' but too young to indulge in the usual traditions of supporters at or past the legal drinking age.
In most locations, and until 2017 in British Columbia, minors aren't allowed in licensed establishments, a significant hindrance to youth soccer support. But this is a new era. And, as Vancouver Albion are showing, support from this next generation can grow in a different way.
"We wanted to encourage youth to get involved and remove the stigma of youth being in these sections where the supporters can have fun and show how much they care," said Rootman, who attempted to join Curva Collective, a now-defunct supporters group at age 11, but struggled to find footing due to his age at the time.
"I realized that the Whitecaps have one of the older supporter demographics, and it was really important that youth didn't have to push their way into the supporters sections but had a space they felt welcome."
You don't need to look far to find subtle differences in their approach: While the name 'Albion' is an alternative way to refer to Great Britain, the group adopted the moniker purely based on their EA Sports FIFA 20 pro clubs team name, Vancouver Albion, in March 2020. The name stuck, and it's grown with them ever since.
Starting with seven members, the group have grown exponentially. Rootman, alongside others including Maayan Zilbershtein, brought a tifo to the supporter's section in Vancouver’s first home match against LAFC after the club’s pandemic seasons in Orlando, Portland and Salt Lake City. While they didn’t bring large numbers and weren't in the general admission supporters section, it was a critical step.
"We didn’t really know anyone at that first game, so we just stuck to ourselves, and we showed up to the march to the match as well, and people seemed to enjoy it," Zilbershtein recalled. "Over time, it expanded to integrating youth into the supporters section to make them feel safer so that they're not just surrounded by alcohol and adults all the time."
A few matches in, they moved into the general admission section, making themselves more visible to the rest of the Whitecaps supporters, who had returned in fewer numbers due to the pandemic, and various scandals surrounding the club.
Slowly, the entrenched supporters groups welcomed Vancouver Albion and helped them learn the ropes of supporting, tifo creation, and matchday preparation, fully integrating them into supporter culture.
Albion weren't just adding youth to the group, but a fresh exuberance that is reinvigorating the southside.
For Peter Czimmermann, President of the Vancouver Southsiders, having the Albion youth in the section not only brings him back to his days of supporting in his native Hungary but gives him hope for the club’s support moving forward.
"That was a demographic that we couldn’t really reach, or maybe we did, and now it is paying off; we were always aware to try and make an all-ages venue for people to bring their kids, but it was mostly around little kids," he told OneSoccer. "It’s really encouraging to see the growth and just how Albion stepped up and made things happen; they are still learning a lot, though."
With many of the original members set to graduate high school in 2023, Albion has hit the road for away trips in San Jose and Portland, yet their ultimate step came on the club’s Next Gen Night, as Rootman joined Czimmermann in leading the supporters section.
“It was inspiring to have him there; we’re still figuring out how it can work,” Czimmermann said. “I’m a lot louder, my voice can reach a bit farther, but I gave [Rootman] pointers, and I think it's important that you do what you want to do and express yourself.”
As graduation ceremonies loom around a similar time to the 2023 Canadian Championship Final between the Whitecaps and CF Montreal, the unique group has big goals for other North American clubs while welcoming the opportunity to create more memories themselves.
“It's amazing to lead the way, but at the end of the day, it means nothing if no one else follows along,” Rootman said. “I would love to see more youth supporters groups in MLS and CPL, I just want people to get out and support their local football clubs.”