Toronto as an epicenter of soccer in North America?
That's what MLS commissioner Don Garber thinks, and the prospect has a nice ring for soccer fans in Canada’s largest city and the fifth-largest market in North America.
Garber made that prediction following the revealing of the league’s worst-kept secret Tuesday that MLS Cup 2010 would come to Toronto, marking the first time in the league’s 15-year history the game will take place outside the U.S.
“This is not just a big event town, it’s a big soccer town,” said Garber in a media scrum at Air Canada Centre. “Many other promoters are coming up to Toronto because they see the success of [Toronto FC] and the success of some of these international matches.”
Just a few years ago, sports fans would have laughed at such a prognostication. In fact, many wondered whether the city would ever step back into the soccer spotlight.
Following the demolition of decrepit Varsity Stadium in 2002, the city lacked a real grass soccer stadium. Without one, the Canadian Soccer Association had to bypass Canada’s biggest soccer market and stage national team matches elsewhere. The situation was an embarrassment.
Fortunes turned for the better and the catalyst actually pre-dates Toronto FC’s arrival on the scene. In 2004, the two-match Champions World Series came to Rogers Centre (then known as SkyDome), drawing crowds of 40,000 and 50,000 involving FC Porto, Liverpool, AS Roma and Celtic. The response proved that a latent demand existed for top-flight international soccer.
That set the tone for other significant milestones to follow including the awarding of an expansion MLS franchise, the construction of BMO Field and the staging of the sold-out FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2007.
But the momentum really picked up with Toronto FC’s surprising off-field success that made headlines around MLS. The club has sold out every MLS game, while the fans have created an in-stadium atmosphere that has sent the message that Toronto has arrived on the international soccer stage.
However, Toronto FC has its sights set on a grander vision.
“We have [a strategy] for TFC, but the next frontier for us would be to bring in other games that maybe don’t involve TFC,” said Paul Beirne, TFC’s director of business operations. “We haven’t really gone that far yet, but as far as TFC is concerned we’re thinking about maybe a big friendly of the Real Madrid kind of stratosphere every other year, so that it’s in the non-Euro years, non-World Cup years.”
Could that include Manchester United? Recent media reports point to a Red Devils tour of North America that may include Toronto.
“We don’t know, there’re a lot of different balls in the air right now about who could and could not be coming,” said Tom Anselmi, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. “What has really happened in the last four years because of the success of TFC and the Real Madrid event is that Toronto is a place to be when ticking off the calendars when [clubs] start thinking about going to North America for friendlies ... the world knows that Toronto understands this game and Toronto loves this game and, so that’s why they want to come.”
With that prevailing sentiment, it may not be long before Toronto fulfills Garber’s prophecy.