At last count, Toronto FC’s travelling contingent to Columbus for the 2008 MLS season opener was standing at 1200+, with some estimates topping 2000. This for the worst team in the league in 2007. Doubters in the Canadian soccer community predicted a drop-off in fan support after the club’s debut season, and while they may yet be proved right, the fans of the league’s worst-performing side have been doing everything right so far.
I’m not going to come out and say that Canadian teams are the answer to the MLS’ problems — the expansion boom in the NASL’s heyday certainly wasn’t helped by franchises like those in Edmonton and Calgary — but the signs that are coming from the soccer community in North America’s most European city are encouraging for an MLS team. Montreal has supported its USL club, the Impact, far better than Toronto’s Lynx (now plying their trade in the PDL) ever experienced, and Canada’s newest soccer-specific-stadium, Saputo Stadium (or is that Stade Saputo?), while wanting in capacity, could be expanded to meet MLS criteria.
Appealing to a range of the population with their marketing strategy was part of the key to Toronto FC’s success in filling the stands, something that MLS clubs stateside desperate to tap into local Spanish markets are trying to unlock.
Canada’s own latin culture, particularly in Montreal and Toronto, is traditionally more heavily influenced by the Italian and Portuguese communities who watch their favourite European clubs on television every weekend. Contrast this to Latin American football fans in the southern United States, whose own favourite club teams not only play just over the border but routinely visit MLS stadia for friendlies and money-spinning tournaments.
A distinct footballing culture is emerging in Canada, itself a local fusion of international traditions. And while Canada’s football clubs may be still be relegated to the back pages of mainstream media outlets, places like the internet and the Italian-language daily Corriere Canadese’s sport pages — the Canadian Gazetta della Sport, if you will — offer fans the eagerly-sought-after coverage that TFC and the Impact deserve.
It may be hard to pinpoint Toronto’s fan appeal, but seamlessly incorporating the city’s different cultural elements without an overtly desperate marketing campaign (or at least a subtle one) may be what American MLS sides with floundering attendance have been lacking. If such a strategy is indeed the formula for Major League success, then Montreal, a team owned by a Sicilian family, coached by a Canadian, and populated with French-, Portuguese- and Italian-Canadian players, is already on the right track.
With such a rich footballing tradition finally flourishing in Toronto and Montreal, promising signs on the continent’s west coast point a to potential future expansion site in Vancouver. Further south, two teams already compete in Los Angeles, San Jose has returned to the league and Seattle are stepping up from the USL in 2009. Factor in the Sounders’ division rivals in Portland and their rabid home support, and the soccer scene out west looks good, with the Vancouver Whitecaps on the outside looking in.
If the ‘Caps are looking to continue their traditional rivalries with Seattle, Toronto and Montreal, they may have to do so in MLS. Stumbling blocks and municipal red tape have delayed the start of construction on a proposed waterfront stadium project funded by Whitecaps patron Greg Kerfoot, but as Major League Soccer becomes an increasingly viable proposition, you have to feel that the opposing parties’ position will be gradually weakened.
That’s not to say that either Montreal or Vancouver bear a divine right to Major League Soccer — the patient, well-reasoned expansion process brought forth by commissioner Don Garber and the league in recent times won’t allow any side, Canadian or otherwise, to jump into the pool without an established framework for long-term success.
Spurred on by memories of the NASL and the contraction of both Florida MLS franchises in 2002, the league’s brass are reluctant to so much as publicly speak out on behalf of either Montreal or Vancouver’s expansion bids, at least until more research has been done.
The signs are good that the league’s cautionary measures, however justified, will eventually be outweighed by the benefits of top-level soccer on both Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Whether or not they are included in the next few rounds of expansion, however, could determine whether the wait is a matter of years or decades.