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Northern exposure Major League Soccer gets a passionate reception in Toronto

TORONTO -- FC Dallas' Arturo Alvarez stood poised to cross a corner kick to his eager teammates. He paused to bestow a hateful glance at the sea of red-clad Toronto FC fans who had launched rolls of streamers, dousing him in red and white crepe paper, as he lined up his kick.

His request to the sideline security staff that the fans be disciplined was likely drowned out by the mantra of "This is our house!" that resonated from a five-section belt of corner and end-zone seats one day in late June, as Toronto played its last home game for a month.

Soccer has secured a home north of the border.

The longtime desire of Torontonians was finally satisfied April 28, when 20,148 herded into the BMO Field stands for the first home game of the only Major League Soccer team located outside the United States: Toronto FC.

"I think Major League Soccer thought, 'Hey, maybe we'll get a fan base,' " said Jeff Marion, a Buffalo attorney and Toronto FC season-ticket holder. "I don't think they realized there was already a soccer culture here, with so many people just waiting for something to grab on to."

Toronto FC was the only addition to the now 13-team MLS for 2007, the league's 11th season. Cleveland and St. Louis were other candidates to become host cities, but Toronto was chosen for the size of the market and history of support for other professional sports, said Dan Courtemanche, MLS senior vice president of marketing and communications. MLS executives hope to expand the league to 16 teams by 2010.

"There was a lot of pent-up demand for soccer [in Toronto]," Courtemanche said. "We all along thought Toronto could be a very good Major League Soccer market, but we've been overwhelmed by the support of the community.

"[In its first year,] no other team had as much interest in season tickets as Toronto, and never as large a supporters' group. It's a tremendous environment. Toronto is arguably the model now for fan support within the MLS."

Another contributing factor to the MLS' interest in Toronto was the presence of a respected ownership group with a willingness to buy: Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and the NBA's Toronto Raptors. The organization contributed to the funding for Toronto's brand new soccer-specific stadium, which is located in Exhibition Place, where Exhibition Stadium was home to baseball's Blue Jays from 1977 to 1989. One of seven teams with a soccer-specific stadium, Toronto was the only one to start its inaugural year with an arena devoted to soccer.

"We're always looking to grow our business, and this seemed like the right time," said Tom Anselmi, chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. "We liked what we saw with the MLS. The league had a good solid foundation behind it, well along in its growth curve, well-funded, good ownership. It was something we could get both financially and emotionally invested in it. We have a multicultural market here, and we believe in soccer."


"The people in my section refer to me as 'Buffalo guy.' " -- Jeff Marion

Marion came out of the womb kicking.

"Who's the one who woke up at 2 in the morning to watch World Cup games in Japan [in 2002]? That'd be me," Marion said. "I'd hit the sack about 9 o'clock, get up at 2 a.m., catch a nap between the 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. games if I got the chance. And, I had cable put in my office so I could watch the World Cup last year."

Marion's obsession with the beautiful game blossomed to an unforeseen level with a professional team installed across the border, only a 90-minute drive away.

"I plunked down in December, gave them my [credit] card number, got the bill right before Christmas," Marion said. "With a 4-year-old boy [who normally shares the game-day experience with his father] and a girl who just turned 3, that was really the wrong time to catch me."

For two Section 122 seats, Marion paid $1,700 for the team's 16 home games. Through eight contests at BMO Field, Toronto has averaged 19,994 in attendance, the highest in the league. Tickets to the Aug. 5 match against David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy have already sold out.

Marion anticipates the bill being a bit steeper next year.

"The organization capped it at 14,000, but I know they could have sold the entire thing as season-ticket packages," Marion said. "I plan to get a third season ticket for my daughter when she turns 5 or so. That is, if they'll let me."


"We sort of knew early on that this was a big deal." -- Sean Keay

Sean and Ryan Keay arrived at La Cervejaria, a restaurant in Toronto's Little Italy, ready to meet Mo Johnston, the man hired to lead the team for which they would soon stockpile passion. The 23- and 25-year-old brothers set out for the first of six pub crawls Toronto FC's coach would make in an effort to generate enthusiasm for the club's inaugural season.

Ryan awaited the chance to pick the coach's brain, reeling questions through his mind: What do you plan to do with this team? Who do you want to sign? What's your favorite beer?

Fifteen to 20 crawlers showed up at the first bar Oct. 26, an intimate outing compared to the November pub dates, when 80 to 100 Toronto crazies joined the crowd.

"That first week, he told a couple of us who he was going to sign, saying, 'Don't tell anyone,' " Sean said. "He told us he was getting Alecko Eskandarian, and a couple weeks later, boom, there he was."

"The passion that he had for it impressed us so much," Ryan said. "You knew the team was in good hands because he was just as into the team and as excited as we were.

"And, he's more fond of white wine than beer."

The Keay brothers, from Toronto, represent the roots of a fan base that has grown exponentially since the team announced its formation in May 2006.

Ryan and Sean have supported Canadian soccer since 2000, when they rooted for the Toronto Lynx, now a member of the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League. The Lynx dropped down to that circuit from the USL First Division in October 2006, a result of low attendance and Toronto FC's entrance into the soccer scene.

"These [fans] were all established soccer groups of some type, long before Toronto FC was established, whether they were just Saturday afternoon drinking buddies or something more," Anselmi said. "They've taken it to the next level, and it's been terrific."

Upon hearing of the MLS' plans to skip across to Canada, Ryan and Sean created a Web site,, urging other fanatics to buy season tickets in Section 113. They anticipated the Web site's message board to be cluttered with thoughts from about 100 fans; 800 have joined the following thus far.

"It's just a party atmosphere," Sean said. "Nothing in Toronto compares to 20,000 fans just going nuts. It's like going to a 20,000-person kegger. You go out, you have a great time, you sing and chant and dance, and you just get lost in the game."


"I didn't think twice about it." -- Jim Brennan

A scan of the stands will display a plethora of individuals claiming to be the team's No. 1 fan, or the first to be on the list to buy season tickets, but Jim Brennan is undoubtedly the top supporter of the city's newest endeavor. And he plays for the team.

Brennan left his family, his school and his country in 1993 to follow his love of soccer.

"I left home at 16 to go play in Europe, to make a living," the 30-year-old TFC midfielder/defender said.

"It was always one of those things where you'd love to be playing in your hometown. The second they asked me [to join the team] I said, 'Oh yeah! Definitely.' "

A Toronto native, Brennan was the first player to sign with the team Sept. 8, 2006, after spending time with five teams in England.

"This city loves soccer, and now you've got a professional team," Brennan said. "We've got smart owners; the players are happy; we've got a great stadium. Everyone just realizes we're on to a good thing here."



FC fast facts / Toronto FC at a glance

Owned and managed by: Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., which also owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors.

Stadium: BMO Field, capacity of 20,000.

Stadium construction cost: Approximately $64.5 million.

Average home attendance: 19,994, a league-high.

Record: 5-7-5 (4-3-1 home, 1-4-4 away).

Key Players: Danny Dichio, Jeff Cunningham, Jim Brennan, Greg Sutton, Carl Robinson.

Tickets: single-game tickets, $15-$60, find at t280/tickets

- Jackie Friedman

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