When is a rivalry a rivalry? In some cases it depends on which supporter you speak to on any given day.
Take the Trillium Cup rivalry between the Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC, which resumes its eighth edition with the first of three matches on Saturday (7:30 pm ET; TSN2 in Canada and MLS LIVE in the US).
For starters, it has geographic proximity. Columbus represented the nearest road trip for Toronto FC faithful before the Montreal Impact joined the league in 2012.
|Trillium Cup History|
The Trillium Cup also has history. And although some might feel it’s more of a “manufactured” rivalry – it was born during the years that a handful of rivalry cups took shape – it still dates back to March 2008, Toronto FC’s second year of existence.
The name of the trophy they play for was picked by the supporters themselves – the trillium is the official flower of the province of Ontario and the state of Ohio. Other names up for vote back then? “The Great Lakes Cup” and “The Buck-Loonie.”
Even the mayors of the two cities at the time, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and Toronto Mayor David Miller, got into it with a wager that saw the loser wearing the other team’s jersey.
But after seven years of one-sided match-ups – Crew SC dominated by taking five of the first six trophies – the question still comes up among supporters and observers.
Is the Trillium Cup actually a rivalry?
The Columbus Perspective
For many Crew SC supporters, who reveled in the early rivalries with D.C. United and the Chicago Fire, TFC simply hasn't been worth worrying about during their time in MLS.
"At least until they make the playoffs, we're going to keep poking fun at them," said Crew Union supporters group co-founder John Clem. "It doesn't matter how much money they spend, they just keep falling on their face... Until they actually show they can do something, it's hard to take them seriously."
That might have been the case on the field. But not in the stands.
Toronto brought a huge group of supporters to Crew Stadium for opening day of 2008, and the match ended in relative chaos with local police getting involved in quelling a scene colored by the flares flying around the stadium.
"[The Trillium Cup rivalry] started off as manufactured, but to a certain extent, with them bringing a lot of fans and the kerfuffles that would happen and causing some ruckus...it kind of became something," Clem said. "I know the year I went up there, we needed a police escort out and we were held after the game and they had to escort us to the bus. It's the only place I've ever had that, or at least the most police I've ever seen."
Every Columbus fan seems to have a story involving projectiles, skirmishes or insults. But for all the fan intensity, the Crew SC players don't seem to harbor any hard feelings for Toronto. As Justin Meram, Crew SC’s longest-tenured player put it, it's about the trophy.
"When you play against Toronto, you're playing for a cup," he said. "The Trillium Cup, That's a trophy; that's hardware. So it is a rivalry. We want to win all three games, and if not, at least two so we get the trophy and bring it home."
A trophy is one thing. A rivalry is another. And according to Crew SC vice-captain and Columbus native Wil Trapp, TFC aren't among the club’s fiercest rivals.
"I think every team in the Eastern Conference is a rival," he said. "We never like to lose to them, especially like last year when we lost three games [to Toronto]. I wouldn't say we're more of a rival with them than we are with DC or Chicago or New England. But we never like to lose those games."
The Toronto FC Perspective
“It doesn’t have quite the same edge to it as the games against Montreal or Vancouver do,” Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley admitted. “I think real rivalries and real passion comes out in these kinds of games over the course of time.”
For TFC supporters, however, the Trillium Cup is, and has perhaps always been, a rivalry off the field moreso than on it. It was in Columbus, with their large traveling supporter contingents often numbering in the thousands, that Toronto FC faithful earned a reputation for their fervent backing of their club.
So it comes as no surprise that for Red Patch Boys president Phil Tobin, Columbus represents a team he says most Toronto FC fans simply “love to beat.”
But the hardware itself – Toronto FC have won two of the seven editions – doesn’t seem to matter for many supporters, including long-time RPB member Ivan Kamladze.
“To me, the Trillium Cup only means that we beat Columbus best out of three,” Kamladze said. “That's the most important thing. It's good for the team and the fans. The fact that it comes with a trophy: who cares?”
In 2009, the TFC supporters were in fine form, bringing nearly 2000 people to Columbus to support the Reds. The Red Patch Boys also hired a plane with “Come On You Reds” written on it, while the U-Sector orchestrated a memorable display as the Crew SC were presented with the Trillium Cup: Newspapers were opened en masse as TFC fans ignored the trophy celebration entirely.
“The team was just laughing!” Tobin said. “[Ex-Toronto FC player] Danny Dichio, [manager] John Carver, both were just pointing and laughing at the fact that we had this wall of newspapers with 2000 supporters out there.”
Despite the bad blood between the two on the day, Tobin looks back at those early encounters with fond memories.
“It was fun being the loud, rambunctious group,” Tobin said. “We were anti-Canadians in a lot of ways. We didn’t really exhibit the typical Canadian behavior. We were loud and proud and a little bit rude.”
Another member of the RPB, Thomas Eberhardt, says the rivalry has matured a lot since those early days.
“The incidents in 2008, 2009, they fuelled the rivalry that wasn’t really there,” Eberhardt explained. “People thought we had to be extra wild to make the rivalry something. Everyone has grown up since then. It’s turned into more of an adult conversation now than it was in the past.”
This year, Columbus Crew SC have sold around 500 tickets to Toronto FC supporters in the south stands for Saturday’s match. These days, there is also much more support from the club for travelling TFC fans, providing buses to Ohio.
And there’s a new twist to the rivalry, too.
“[Toronto FC GM] Tim Bezbatchenko is from Columbus,” Tobin explained. “I think it’s a little bit of a personal thing for him. He really wants to beat Columbus just like the Canadian players want to beat Montreal. All the time.”
What are your thoughts on the Columbus Crew SC – Toronto FC rivalry? Where does it rank among MLS rivalries? What’s your favorite memory from the all-time matchups?