TORONTO FC CREATE NEW EXPECTATIONS
Canada has not yet achieved much in football, but the sport is becoming more and more popular there and with Toronto FC, major league professional football has returned to Canada’s largest city. Could this be the start of a bright future for Canadian football?
Spring cannot come soon enough for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Inc. (MLSE), the owners of the newest Major League Soccer Franchise, Toronto FC. After a year of building from the ground up, the team will open its season on 7 April against Chivas USA, signaling a return of major league professional football to Canada’s largest city.
The league approved the Toronto ownership, as the first team outside the USA, in a heartbeat. No wonder, as MLSE have solid credentials – they also own the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs – and therefore have extraordinary experience in sports franchising. They are also excited about the new team’s potential in a multicultural city of 2.6 million inhabitants.
Sceptics will duly point to the failure of past attempts to establish professional football in Toronto. In the 1970s and 80s, the Toronto Blizzard played in the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) in half-empty stadiums. Although they were one of the most strongly supported teams, the collapse of the financially strapped NASL spelt doom for the club’s prospects. The plans, this time, are far less ambitious.
Toronto FC will play in a brand new, football-specific stadium with a capacity of 20,000. The 80 million Canadian dollar (52.8 million EUR) project will also be the headquarters for the Canadian national teams as well as the venue for the FIFA U-20 World Cup final in 2007. Ironically, BMO Field is being constructed on the site of the Exhibition Stadium where the Blizzard used to play. Marketing efforts have gone well, as roughly 10,000 season tickets had been sold by the end of January.
Former Scottish striker Mo Johnston was hired to coach the team in August 2006 and he has been busy working the phones making deals. He has also attended several national team training camps, while in November, the MLS held an expansion draft to take “unprotected” players from the other twelve MLS teams. Johnston expects 11 of his 18-man squad to be Canadians and to that end; he has extended a hand to the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA).
The club also went to the extraordinary lengths of holding five days of open tryouts when almost 1,000 hopeful players tried to impress Johnston and earn a coveted Toronto FC red/gray shirt.
“Right now we are building a team and we don’t want one superstar. We want to build and take our time with this,” Johnston, 43, says. “That’s why we have secured almost all the Canadian national team back line. So that part I am fairly happy with. Obviously we need a good blend in the midfield. Having that goes a long way because they are well coached and it doesn’t take a lot of work to do in pre-season. Everyone is pulling for us. The CSA realize it’s important. We are all in this together. A good Toronto FC team can only benefit the national team. Obviously we want to work closely with them. I am here to help and they are here to help me.”
Along with former Nottingham Forest player Jim Brennan, who has accompanied Johnston on weekly “crawls” through the city’s various ethnic communities, Johnston is pleased to have signed Irish international Ronnie O’Brien and Canadian Stalwarts Marco Reda and Chris Pozniak, among others.
The fiery Scotsman has heard all the negative comments about the MLS’s level of play and he dismisses it all with the utmost contempt. “It’s very competitive,” Johnston argues. “If you look at the big-name superstars who have come over and failed, it’s no walk in the park, I’ll tell you that, having played in it. You are competing with the heat in the height of the summer; Americans are getting stronger and technically aware. To be honest, all the big-name teams that have come over have struggled. Say what you want, it’s a very good league. Really, the kids who have come through for the US national team, Landon Donovan, Bobby Convey, Josh Wolff, Brian Mc Bride, they all started their careers here and went to the FIFA World Cup. A lot have come in and benefited from the MLS. A lot of coaches have taken note.”
The quality of Canadian youth players is well known among coaches. You only have to look at Own Hargreaves who was developed in Calgary and has since starred for Bayern Munich and England, and, until his premature retirement due to cancer, Canadian national goalkeeper Craig Forrest played for West Ham United in the English Premier League. Indeed, football is the most popular participation sport in Canada.
According to the CSA, there are 990,000 registered football players in the country – half of them female – which is almost twice the number of ice hockey players. Unfortunately, the absence of a top-class professional league has meant that those fortunate enough resort to playing overseas. The rest toil away in semi-professional domestic leagues that can provide neither the competition nor the financial wherewithal to survive. Much talent is therefore lost. The MLS franchise will now provide enormous incentive to continue their careers at home.
THE SPORT OF THE FUTURE
Johnston has had a very positive reaction from Canadian players and agents. Barry Maclean, who represents Jim Brennan, Marco Reda, Ronnie O’Brien, Chris Pozniak and several other Toronto FC signings, is delighted the players will play at home. “I think the biggest thing is that the kids from Canada are very excited just because they are coming home,” Maclean says. “I try to explain to them in advance the scope of what is happening. All of them, when they see the organization and the media attention around it, realize the support for Toronto FC is significantly different from what they have seen in North America before. First of all, it gives a vehicle of our young players to to get into professional football on a daily basis without having to uproot and go across the ocean. That’s one thing. Two, it gives the role models Canadian football is looking for. There’s a chance for a player to move forward and become a professional soccer player and in the past there hasn’t been.”
Maclean is supportive of the Canadian soccer program, not only as an agent of Canadian players but also as the coach of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo (Ontario). He knows that sometimes location counts more than money. “Let’s face it, a Premiership player makes more money than your entire MLS team budget,” he admits, “but we have closed the gap between professional European football and the league has managed itself well. There are a lot of people with deep pockets and they believe this is the sport of the future. In Canada, having Toronto FC on board is going to be the flagship for the game to flourish at the professional level.”
“VERY, VERY NICE”
Immediately after signing a contract to coach Toronto FC, former Scottish international Mo Johnston made a commitment to the local community that he will pursue excellence at once. He went out and bought a house in the desirable Beaches area of the city, proving that his is a long-term vision.
“I want to be very competitive,” he replies when asked about his goals for the team’s inaugural 2007 MLS season. “We want to bring in some really good foreign players to go with the blend we have got at the moment. So far we have eleven players. I could put a team on the field right now but I need better. Obviously when I say being competitive you look to the play-offs. I know that is high expectations for a brand-new team but you look at what you are bringing in and hopefully you can achieve that.”
Johnston enjoyed immense success as a player, winning Scottish Premier League titles with Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers in the 1980s. he also played for Heart of Midlothian as well as Nantes in the French league and English Premiership club Everton before finishing his playing career with the Kansas City Wizards of the MLS. Coaching he has found rather different. Upon retirement he paid his dues as an assistant coach in Kansas City, and a year ago he was the head coach of the Red Bull New York MLS franchise before getting the sack following the club’s lackluster start to the season. Yet, he was always clear in his mind that he would enjoy coaching.
“Look, I have been involved in football my whole life, “ he declares. “It’s something I have always done and something I like. It was an easy transition for me. I took a year off, I went up to New York and coached there for three and a half years then ended up in Toronto and I am looking forward to do it. I had been to Toronto three or four times – I came with Hearts. It’s beautiful, very similar with certain cities in America. It’s very diverse: there are Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, Caribbean, British – it’s so multi-cultural and for me it’s very, very nice.”