By early Sunday evening in Toronto, the 2017 MLS Cup champion will be crowned. But for a group of Australian MLS fans who gather in a bar in Sydney to watch Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC battle, it’ll already be Monday morning.
Though Cheers Bar in Sydney is nearly 10,000 miles from BMO Field in Toronto, watch party organizer Nick Puñal feels a special connection to MLS, and wants to foster that appreciation for fellow Australian soccer fans through the season’s final match. (For those in North America, match coverage starts tonight, Dec. 9, at 4 pm ET on ESPN and UniMás in the US, TSN and TVAS in Canada).
As MLSSoccer.com reported in March, Puñal was an early adopter of Atlanta United FC, having once lived in Atlanta for work connected to the 1996 Summer Olympics. In fact, this year, he created a fledgling supporters’ group — Sydney 17 Supporters Group — which has attracted Australian online followers from as far away as Adelaide and Brisbane. Puñal organized seven watch parties throughout the 2017 season to give half-a-world-away support to the Five Stripes.
Though his beloved team was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, Puñal was encouraged by what he saw not just for his team, but for the future of MLS.
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“After being exposed to MLS during the 2017 season and seeing how Atlanta United has gone about things, not just on the field, but off it too, I really believe that the MLS will be a top five league in years to come,” Puñal asserts. “If other clubs can emulate what Atlanta has done in their own special way I believe we are going to see a spike in global interest in this league.”
Puñal notes that watch parties are typically on Sunday mornings in Sydney, reliant on the ESPN and BeIN Sports broadcasts of matches taking place on Saturday afternoons and evenings in the US. The inaugural watch party for his group was during the first-ever regular season match on Mar. 5 between Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls. The most recent was, incidentally, the hard-fought Oct. 22 2-2 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium between the Five Stripes and the MLS Cup hosts, Toronto FC.
Puñal has been working to convert unaffiliated soccer fans walking into his watch parties into Atlanta fans, but for MLS Cup, he’s encouraging fans of all teams to come representing. He expects that loyalties at the watch party will be split between Seattle and Toronto for the match, but he’s ultimately looking for the match to be a springboard for his 2018 plans.
“I do see a growing audience for MLS in Australia, but it is going to take some time,” Puñal says. “One of the reasons I decided to promote the MLS Cup Final was to get more of the other teams fans to come along to our Sydney 17 SG watch parties when we play their teams in 2018.
“The most important thing,” he adds, “is to create a healthy following across all MLS clubs in Australia. This will take time, but, the important thing is to take the first step.”