Seeing it as an opportunity to experiment with his squad and give some experience to its younger members, manager Ian McColl was keen to get as much as he could from Sunderland’s invite to join the United Soccer Association (USA) in 1967.
With the league looking to steal a march on its competitors the organisers had decided to import existing clubs into their franchises, and so the Lads were parachuted into British Columbia to represent the Vancouver Royal Canadians.
Not all the players felt the same way as McColl however, and whilst some of the team could be excused for feeling homesick or struggling with the heat and amount of travelling there were suggestions that one or two of them were spending too much time ‘soaking’ up the local culture.
The fact that the Royals, as they were known colloquially, suffered some heavy defeats in their opening games seemed to back these rumours up, but a draw against Toronto City 55 years ago today did at least stop the rot and help bring about an upturn in form.
Four days earlier the Royals had hosted Toronto, a.k.a. Hibernian, at the Empire Stadium within Vancouver’s popular Hastings Park. As the only two Canadian sides in the league, the game was a derby of sorts, but after the visitors had ran out comfortable 4-2 winners they were expected to complete a double in the return match.
The league format meant that this would be the only instance of McColl’s men playing the same team twice though, and it appears as if some lessons were quickly learned as they made more of a game of it the second time out.
The Royals took the lead after 34 minutes when Allan Gauden followed up a Neil Martin shot that had been beaten out by Thomson Allan. George Mulhall then extended the advantage with just over an hour gone when he hit home a fantastic left foot effort from 25 yards out, the strike putting him out in front in terms of goals scored for Vancouver with three. Colin Suggett would join him on that total by the end of the tour, but in the immediate aftermath it was Toronto that were looking to get level.
The hosts got back into things moments later when Colin Stein popped up during a goalmouth scramble and with 12 minutes left to play Joe Davis scored from the penalty spot to make it 2-2. The Royals had spent a large part of the game looking to attack but they were forced to withstand some pressure after that point, particularly when Colin Todd was dismissed late on for arguing with the referee.
It wasn’t the biggest surprise that the visitors had let a two goal lead slip – at that stage, they had the worst defensive record in either group and the result saw them remain bottom of the Western Division. There were signs of improvement though and three more ‘ties’ plus a win in the remaining four games meant Vancouver ended up finishing 9th overall out of 12 sides. Jim Baxter, meanwhile, one of those thought to have been making the most of the hospitality abroad, still managed to be named in the All-Star side.
Given Wearside’s links to the 1st president of the United States of America the club may have better suited to playing as the Washington Whips, who reached the league final thanks to the efforts of Aberdeen’s squad.
They were eventually beaten 6-5 via a golden goal by Los Angeles Wolves, who you may guess were in truth Wolverhampton Wanderers, but whilst it was an entertaining game with which to end the tournament the overall event proved a little underwhelming.
Crowds varied wildly from a high of over 34,000 to a low of less than 700, with Vancouver averaging a relatively healthy figure of just over 7,000 across six home matches.
Any knowledge McColl did gain proved fruitless in the long run as he did not see out the coming 1967-68 season, whereas the USA soon merged with the National Professional Soccer League to form the North American Soccer League instead. British clubs were brought back for the 1969 version, but Sunderland were not one of them.
Wednesday 25 June 1967
United Soccer Association Western Division
Toronto City (Hibernian) 2 (Stein 68, Davis 78)
Vancouver Royal Canadians (Sunderland) 2 (Gauden 34, Mulhall 66)
Vancouver: Montgomery; Heslop, Todd, Parke, Kinnell; Suggett, Baxter, Gauden, Mulhall; O’Hare, Martin.
Varsity Stadium, attendance 4,385