TORONTO – The Canadian Soccer Association's announcement on Thursday that all four men’s national team home matches in 2012 will be held in Toronto has sparked a passionate response across the country.
When the news hit, fans took to social media and message boards to chime in on the decision, and the reaction was predictably mixed. While Toronto-area supporters were understandably elated to find out that they’d be able to see the national team in person four times this year, some fans from elsewhere in Canada questioned the move.
“I think for Vancouver and people outside of Toronto, there’s quite a bit of disappointment that the games weren’t spread around,” Brett Graham, vice president of Vancouver Whitecaps supporters group the Southsiders, told MLSsoccer.com by phone.
Graham organized the Canadian supporters section at BC Place (below at right) for the recent CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying tournament, a section that Canada head coach John Herdman repeatedly praised for helping to create a home-field advantage.
The tournament itself was a smash hit at the gate, with Canadian matches attracting crowds upwards of 25,000. It is because of this success that Graham feels Vancouver is ready to host the men’s team after nearly a decade’s absence.
“I know sometimes in the past when it was played at Swangard [Stadium] almost 10 years ago, that the attendance wasn’t for the best,” Graham said, referring to a period when the men’s team played many games in Burnaby, a Vancouver suburb. “Since the Whitecaps have made it to Major League Soccer, the sport is growing quite a bit in the city and we just showed off with the women’s games that we would have been able to sell a lot of tickets.
“I believe for [men’s] World Cup qualifying in Vancouver, with proper marketing from the CSA, that they could have easily gotten close to that amount that they got for the final, just over 25,000.”
Despite the growing numbers on the West Coast, the men’s side has chosen to make Toronto home, a decision that – according to men’s coach Stephen Hart – takes into account a number of factors.
“The reality is that it made sense to play the games in Toronto, to minimize the travel as much as you can, and not have the players crossing time zones,” Hart told reporters at a press event on Thursday. “We felt that in Toronto, the dressing room, the field, everything feels like home. In discussion with players and with staff, we thought the best thing to give us an advantage would be to actually play in Toronto.”
That didn't necessarily sit well with those in Vancouver. Vancouver Sun writer Russell Berrisford questioned the validity of comfort over character for the Canadian team, considering that it "isn’t a team that is interested in engaging with a huge swathe of the fan base."
"What this group of players really need is to step outside of their comfort zone and be made to realize that they need to produce on the field (any field) rather than be worrying about how happy they are with the hotel buffet," Berrisford wrote on Friday.
Aside from logistical and geographical issues, Hart said that another major thing going for Toronto is the playing surface. BMO Field has had a natural grass surface for the past two years, while BC Place and Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium – which hosted games for years before switching to an artificial turf field – do not.
“The players are accustomed to the surface [at BMO Field] which is very, very important,” Hart said. “We would love to be in a position to play in Vancouver or Edmonton or even Moncton, but logistically it’s just not possible. To play on turf would put us at a disadvantage. Most of the players don’t play on turf on a regular basis, so it doesn’t make sense.”
While he acknowledged the other issues, Graham felt that the playing surface was not good enough reason to have all the games in Toronto.
“I thought that Montreal having grass [at Stade Saputo] as well that they would have seen one game, or that glam friendly [against the United States in June] would have been outside of Toronto if they got all the World Cup qualification matches,” he said.
Graham stressed that the absence of the national team outside of Toronto will hurt the sport’s growth in the rest of Canada at a time when the club game is gaining mainstream acceptance.
“I think that it’s kind of shameful that if you’re trying to grow the game across the country and get people to follow the Canadian game, and not their grandfather’s team of Italy or England, that these games aren’t in Vancouver or Montreal or Edmonton,” Graham said. “Let’s face it, why should I cheer for the Canadian national team if they never play where I live?”