And You Thought MLS Fans Didn't Care
FourFourTwo UK|February 2017

Eurosnobs give MLS a bad rap, but keep your opinions to yourself when Seattle and Toronto fans are about.

Graham Parker

The main stand is turning a different shade of red. Toronto FC’s fans, as much a part of this underdog story as any player, are melting away to the exit gates. For the past few hours they have watched their team do absolutely everything but score, while restricting Seattle Sounders to precisely zero shots on target. Now, though, as the Sounders’ Roman Torres wheels off to celebrate the penalty that has won the 2016 MLS Cup Final, the sea of red and white scarves morphs into a sea of red seats.

But thinking back to what Toronto have packed into their short history – a history that at times has resembled a desperate gambler playing one more hand in a bid to recoup his losses – what’s remarkable is not the efficiency with which the Canadian supporters vacate their seats, but the fact they were here at all.

Duncan Fletcher, a podcaster and writer covering the team, told FourFourTwo before the game: “If I’m honest, I’m just going to enjoy today. There’s actually a sense of relief that we’re not a laughing stock any more. Whatever happens now, we’ve shown we’re a proper club.”

Fletcher is all too aware of Toronto’s inglorious past. His first blog, Cruel Geography, detailed how “supporting [your] local team means a lifetime of rarely alleviated struggle and misery”. As someone who hailed from and supported Darlington as a young man, Fletcher may have felt cursed when, having emigrated and wound up in Toronto, he discovered a local team no more capable of stabilising any emotions attached to them.

But Toronto had support. When FFT meets Fletcher pre-game in a pub near the stadium and packed with red shirts, he recalls going to his first Toronto game with the degree of scepticism that is every English emigre’s birthright when they encounter any cultural aspect of American (or in this case Canadian) soccer. Yet he recalls pulling a pleasantly surprised face at how the event felt.

“It was a decent crowd, and it felt right,” he tells FFT. “I had kept in touch with football in Europe as best I could, and Toronto’s a very multi-cultural city, which means that it’s full of fans who have teams elsewhere. So the culture of the game has always been there if you’re prepared to look for it – even though ice hockey is the game here. But I went along to a match, looked around, saw this massive crowd who seemed to know what was going on, and... you know.”

Fletcher shrugs like a man who has found a football team and then been swept along with their fortunes – or lack of them.

This is Toronto’s first MLS Cup final, following an unprecedented run during which their attendances built to a crescendo as the Canadians ignited what had become a dormant local enthusiasm.

That doesn’t mean, however, that this is just a fair weather fan base. The story has proved to be more complex than that.

When Toronto played their first home match in April 2007, David Beckham was not yet in the league, though the man who’d bring him there, Tim Leiweke, had broken news of the deal a few months earlier. MLS, embattled since its first wave of post-World Cup 94 devotion had receded in the post-9/11 economy, was finally showing some signs of moving off the back foot. Even before Toronto had played a game they were seen as a bellwether of changing fortunes for the league, as the team’s owners, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment (MLSE) – who also owned the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors – were legitimate heavy hitters in the sports industry.

The story of changing MLS ownership has quietly been one of the most significant developments of the last decade. It’s important to remember that it hasn’t just been the wave of expansions (the league will grow to 22 teams next term, from 12 before Toronto joined a decade ago) that has increased the number and the varieties of owners – it has been from a series of divestments, too.

With the league on the verge of collapse towards the end of 2001, a painful decision had to be made. Both Florida teams – Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion – were axed, and the remaining 10 teams were all consolidated under the ownership of just three remaining patrons: Phil Anschutz of AEG, Clark Hunt and Robert Kraft. Of those three, Kraft maintained the New England Revolution as an adjunct to his principal interest in the NFL’s New England Patriots, while Anschutz agreed to take on the majority of the remaining teams.

The league stabilised, though it wasn’t spectacular. The Hunts built the first soccer-specific stadium in the country in Columbus and AEG helped finance what would become LA Galaxy’s home in Carson, California. Gradually, thoughts turned to expanding again.

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