Friday, March 16, 2012

MLS eyes northern exposure in Canada

All eyes in Major League Soccer have turned towards the northern boarder this week. Between the on-field success of Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League, as well as the anticipation of 50,000+ fans for Montreal's home opener, it appears that MLS' northern exposure is where it's at.

Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America writes about the MLS growth in the north.

It has been one of the league's doormats since joining MLS in 2007, yet Toronto FC has broken new ground for MLS with the devotion and input of its powerful fan base. Reaching the Concacaf Champions League semifinals by upsetting the Galaxy has given the franchise its finest on-field moment.

Maybe it’s fitting that a Canadian team is the last one standing of North America's top professional division in the regional club competition.

Toronto FC has certainly stunk on the field, having failed to qualify for the playoffs in each of its five seasons, but Commissioner Don Garber gives the first Canadian city to join the league a lot of credit for sparking passionate support that is snowballing through much of the league. Perhaps that 4-3 aggregate upset of the high-profile, heavily moneyed Galaxy in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals is how those fickle soccer gods repay those who bring their passion and hope to every game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s about time the Red Patch Boys, North End Elite, et al, got their due.

Any misconception that pro soccer interest in Toronto crested with the 21,000 or so supporters who routinely pack BMO Field went down the drain nine days ago when 47,568 fans filled Rogers Centre for the CCL first leg. Garber was in attendance with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum, and on a conference call with reporters the following day he spoke about what the event and the crowd meant.

“Last night I turned to Larry Tanenbaum and I said, every time I attend a big MLS event, in this case, an event with two MLS teams, I kind of get emotional because this league had so many challenges seven, or eight or nine years ago,” said Garber. “It would have been impossible to have conceived that you would have 40,000-plus on a weeknight going absolutely nuts for two MLS teams and then having front page photographs and articles in the newspaper when you leave town. It started in Toronto.

“It certainly reached an entirely new level in Seattle. The first time I did the March to the Match or saw the fans come out in the pouring rain of the first championship game we had up there in the pouring rain and fans being there through thick and thin. Or going up to a meeting in Microsoft and seeing half of the office wearing Sounders jerseys, then going down trying to lobby for the public stadium support in Philadelphia and seeing hundreds and hundreds of members of the Sons of Ben. It all sort of feels a bit like a tidal wave that is rising and this massive interest in the league.”

The league will rise further this weekend when its 19th franchise and third Canadian entry, Montreal, plays its first MLS home game against Chicago. More than 50,000 tickets have been sold and capacity at Olympic Stadium, where the Impact will play until renovations are completed at Stade Saputo, has been increased to approximately 60,000. No one expects subsequent games to approach that number, but playing a league game in a big stadium – long regarded as anathema unless accompanied by fireworks or an international exhibition – has in certain markets created a demand that helps drives fans to games in the smaller facilities.

Philly opened its 2010 expansion season with a bunch of road games and two matches at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL Eagles. The games drew crowds of 34,870 and 25,038 that didn’t fill up much of the Linc, but did fire up a portion of the populace.

“You know, if we’d been part of the league when it started in 1996, I don’t think the interest would have been nearly this strong,” says Philly president Nick Sakiewicz, whose team often sells out PPL Park (capacity 18,500). “There’s no question that fans around here watching MLS, especially teams nearby like D.C. and New York, for more than a decade have been frustrated by having to wait so long for a team.

“And while playing in an NFL stadium long-term obviously hasn’t worked in our league, having our first two games at Lincoln Financial Field gave a lot more people the opportunity to see the team and what an MLS game looked like than if we had played in Chester from the start. When we did move there, people knew the smaller capacity meant they might not get tickets, so if they didn’t have season tickets they at least bought them well in advance.”

It’s a sign of the league’s maturity that in other cities, a reverse process has also worked. Two seasons in CommunityAmerica Ballpark, where the capacity barely nudges five figures for Sporting Kansas City games, has prompted loud sellouts at Livestrong Sporting Park. Vancouver played at Empire Field before moving into B.C. Place, where the reduced capacity of 21,000 approximates that of its previous home yet has room for expansion. San Jose will leave Buck Shaw Stadium (10,500) for its new stadium (about 18,000) sometime next year with hopefully the same effect.

Garber was also in attendance last Monday in Portland, and another raucous sellout crowd – in the pouring rain – conjured a throbbing atmosphere as the Timbers beat Philadelphia, 3-1. How to explain what has happened in the Northwest? For Cascadia Cup home games against Vancouver and Portland, Seattle has announced it will open up CenturyLink Field to its full capacity (66,000), which is an amazing development considering those teams entered MLS just last year.

With the addition of Montreal, Toronto has not only a nearby soccer rival dating back to days in the lower divisions as well as the old NASL, but a bitter foe frequently encountered in the NHL and Canadian Football League. TFC and the Impact will meet three times in league play and twice more in the Canadian Championship to determine a representative for the next version of the CCL.

Might such games in the future be candidates for the larger venues available? Pent-up demand is a powerful force. And what if they meet someday in MLS Cup? Wow.

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