TORNTO – Hosting MLS Cup is, without a doubt, a milestone for Toronto FC and the city of Toronto.
“We were told that if we could turn the franchise around we’d be amazed by the support we’d get and that’s what we saw,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said in reference to the team’s fans on Thursday. “They’re ready to explode and get behind our group and help get us across the finish line on Saturday night.”
For Torontonian soccer fans, however, Saturday night's game (8 pm ET; FOX, UniMás in US; TSN and RDS in Canada) will be more than a milestone; it will place an international spotlight on the city’s large soccer community and its growth in recent years.
“To be honest, one of the reasons I chose to come to Toronto was the sports teams,” says local soccer fan and podcaster Bernie Uche, who arrived in the city in 2007, the same year Toronto FC played its first match. “Being a football fan was exciting for me.”
Toronto – and Canada – have always had outlets for soccer fans, but the experience at the local club level is just now catching up. When he first came to Toronto, Uche says that soccer fandom was mainly associated with Italians watching Serie A. It was – and remains – a good place to do that; the city’s Little Italy offers a great many options to that effect.
“Now,” he says, “I think Toronto FC – Giovinco, Bradley, Altidore – has become the city’s home for football.”
This change has been a long time coming, and encompasses developments beyond BMO Field.
“The 2010 World Cup was the first time I saw this city embrace a large football event,” Uche says. “People in the streets wearing the jerseys of their favorite countries: That’s when I saw the tide turning.”
That tide is now working in Toronto FC’s favor. The city has been noticeably redder in recent weeks. TFC stickers can be found on public transit vehicles. An increasing number of club jerseys can be spotted about town. But some of that tide is more symbolic.
“Coming into the city and seeing BMO Field is underestimated,” says Uche, who passes it on the drive in from Mississauga. Located next to the Gardiner Expressway, it is something of an unofficial gate to the city. “I see it every day. It’s something that I definitely appreciate, especially the way BMO Field looks now.”
The success of BMO Field, which set attendance records in its newly-expanded incarnation, reflects a number of more subtle developments.
“A lot of people think that the fan base has grown because Toronto FC is successful,” Uche says, “but over the last few years our fan base has grown up because soccer has taken hold amongst the youths and immigrants.”
Nearly half of Torontonians were born abroad and soccer is the sport of choice for Canadian kids – maybe even when the weather is a frozen hellscape – so these developments make a fair amount of demographic sense. They have not, however, happened over night.
“I know there are a lot of British immigrants who had a suppressed desire to be football fans and Toronto FC satisfied that,” Uche says with regards to Toronto FC’s early days. “But when you have immigrants from a lot of football-crazy countries and they need an outlet to express that, that’s what Toronto FC has given a lot of communities.”
Toronto FC is not yet a perfect reflection of the city’s diversity. Progress is, however, being made in that and other directions. In that respect, the MLS Cup final can help the city consolidate its gains and build on them in seasons to come.
“I think we really have grown exponentially,” Uche says. Then, in what now passes for a magnanimous acknowledgement of Canadian soccer’s other teams, he adds: “I hope it stimulates more of a rivalry with Toronto because rivalries make the sport. I hope it grows interest around the country.”