Thriving in Toronto
Saturday, May 19, 2007
TORONTO, May 18 -- MLS expanded into Canada this season and, along the way, discovered European soccer.
With red maple leaf flags snapping above BMO Field, the CN Tower in the distance and Lake Ontario just a few field lengths away, there is no doubt you are in striking and sophisticated Toronto.
But when the supporters spill off the streetcars outside the north gate Saturday afternoon to watch Toronto FC, MLS's 13th and newest team, play D.C. United, a visitor will feel as if he or she has stepped across the Atlantic and into the heart of the world's most popular game.
"What we have here is special," said Mo Johnston, the club's Scottish-born coach who, until being hired here, spent his MLS days playing and coaching in two of the league's dullest environments, Kansas City and New York. "It's totally different. It's a European mentality. They are very diverse, they are sophisticated, they understand what is going on."
It's not just the support -- a league-record number of season ticket holders, two 20,000-seat sellouts and a 19,123 turnout on a cold, rainy night Wednesday -- because, after all, other MLS expansion teams have drawn well in their maiden seasons. It's the intensity of the support, which is a product of civic pride, nationalism, excitement over a new pro team and, unlike most MLS cities, a deep passion for soccer fueled by Canada's historical ties to England and Toronto's multicultural makeup.
"The fans in D.C., I always thought they were the best in MLS," said forward Alecko Eskandarian, who spent four years with United before being traded here this past offseason. "But being here, I'd have to say, hands down, we have the best fans and the best support."
In October 2005, when MLS awarded Toronto FC's operating rights to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, owner of the city's NHL and NBA teams, local officials hoped to sell 7,500 season tickets, but when the number reached 14,000 early this year, sales were cut off to ensure game-day availability for the general public.
One season ticket holder was honored last month for having the longest commute (six hours each way), while others drive five hours from Ottawa.
Before this year, few if any MLS venues were known for their menacing environments. And the only big, soccer-sophisticated audiences could be found in Washington and Los Angeles. Toronto has combined those elements into a cauldron of sound and exuberance -- well, perhaps over-exuberance in the home opener, when fans sprayed Kansas City goal scorer Eddie Johnson with beer.
That enthusiasm might also have contributed to structural problems inside the stadium. This week, the team had to make emergency repairs to bolts and fasteners that were believed to have been jarred loose by stomping fans.
"It is very intimidating for other teams. You can see it. They are not used to it," said defender Jim Brennan, an Ontario native who played 10 years in England before becoming Toronto's first signing.
BMO Field, a public-private venture, is a little more than a mile west of the city center at Exhibition Place, a vast lakeside parcel that includes a trade center, arena and tourist attractions. The artificial turf field will serve as home for the Canadian national teams and host 12 matches, including the final, during this summer's under-20 World Cup.