MONTREAL – Thursday night was a big night for Canadian soccer.
For the first time in MLS history, a postseason game was played north of the border – and it involved two Canadian teams. The Montreal Impact defeated rivals Toronto FC, 3-0, in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, and joined the Vancouver Whitecaps as the first two Canadian teams to ever reach the Conference Semifinals, where they’ll face Columbus Crew SC starting on Sunday (7 pm ET; FS1, FOX Deportes in the US, TSN in Canada).
MLS Commissioner Don Garber was at Stade Saputo to witness this piece of history. In his first visit to Montreal since the Impact's CONCACAF Champions League final heartbreaker in April, he took the opportunity to look back on the progress made since TFC became the first Canadian MLS club almost 10 years ago.
“When we thought about expanding up in Canada, we set a goal, and we still have that goal, and we haven’t achieved the most important goal, which is to help Canada qualify for the World Cup,” Garber told reporters before the game. “But the goal alongside that was to help build the sport here in this country. This sport’s got a lot of history, and I think that we're beginning to see some of the benefits of that.
“We’ve seen great things happening. Attendances in Vancouver have been spectacular. They had five sellouts here [in Montreal]. Toronto’s expanded their stadium and dramatically increased their attendance. We recognize that the sport, with MLS, is still relatively young, but we’re making progress, so I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
The increasing attention that MLS gets is also pleasing to the Commissioner, who described the coverage of Toronto’s and Montreal’s qualification for the playoffs as “remarkable.”
“I felt like I was reading a newspaper in Italy or in England,” he said about the headlines in the Canadian press. “The sport has matured here. It’s not quite the same in every market, but we got SportsCenter highlights back in the States yesterday from our two playoff games, there was an article in the New York Times this week about our progress internationally, particularly in the United Kingdom. Media coverage has been ramping up dramatically. That’s one of the real success points that we can look at this year.”
As is often the case when Garber speaks with Canadian media, there were questions about the international status of Canadian players on US-based MLS clubs.
“We think about it all the time," Garber said. "We speak to Victor [Montagliani, Canada Soccer president,] a lot. . . . We have a desire to come up with a solution I’ve mentioned that to Victor quite a bit over the last couple of months.
“We’re trying to manage through the legal challenges that exist with that change in the rule in the United States. But we recognize that folks up here want a change and believe that it will be better for the development of the sport. And that’s what our goal is: to develop the sport here.”