April 6, 2007 MLS preview (from Globe and Mail)

POSTED ON: 06/04/07
Brunt: North American soccer looks different this time around

Globe and Mail Update

CARSON, Calif, It is merely a happy coincidence of the calendar, exactly thirty years later, that two Toronto sports franchises will share the same birthday.

The optics, though, couldn't be more different.

Back then, on that famous snowy afternoon at Exhibition Stadium, a game was played that tens of thousands now claim to have shivered through in person, and the big city was ecstatic at the prospect of joining a true Big League. Baseball, in the form of the Blue Jays, raised an oft-insecure burg onto the same plane as New York and Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, through a game that wasn't our national pastime, but theirs.

The sheer heft of it was a significant part of the attraction, as the Jays grew to become the first team to inhabit a convertible dome, the first to draw four million fans in a single season, the first foreign franchise to win a World Series, then two. Self-celebration on a grand scale, the joy of finding your hometown now marked on a larger map.

What will take place here, Saturday night, in an unremarkable mall-and-fast-food corner of this vast urban sprawl, likely won't become a cultural signpost, won't produce a Doug Ault legend, won't be seen by a whole lot of people, either in person or on television.

Toronto FC plays its first regular season game in Major League Soccer, taking on Chivas USA, one of two teams that share the Home Depot Center (the other is David Beckham's future employer, the Los Angeles Galaxy), and the vast majority of folks back home have no idea who is in the lineup, who is in the league, and whether any of it amounts to a hill of beans.

There are signs, though, that just as that first love affair with the Jays' was in part an embrace of being part of something larger, there are those now ready to listen to MLS's sales pitch, which begins with the conceit that small is beautiful. It doesn't have to be everyone's cup of tea. It doesn't have to be played in the biggest park, or on the largest stage.

It certainly took awhile for the MLS itself to understand that. Born in the wake of the breakthrough 1994 World Cup, the goal again, cynics note was to make soccer as popular here as it is on the rest of the planet. There was a strict cost-control structure in place, to prevent the excesses that killed the old North American Soccer League, but still teams were marching out to play in vast, half-empty National Football League stadiums, the hopelessness of the task obvious to everyone.

The transformation has been painful, but now they seem to have the right formula at the right time. Seven of the thirteen MLS teams will play this season in their own, small, soccer-specific stadiums, most in the 20,000 seat range. Games are shown on several different television networks in the U.S., including ABC and ESPN (and unlike the NHL on NBC, for instance, the league is actually collecting rights fees), but no one is pretending that soccer will ever push for a place among the major team sports.

At the same time, a legitimate, knowledgeable North American audience for the world game has grown independent of the Old World ties that actually kept soccer snobs away from domestic matches. In addition to the recreational crowd, a whole generation has enjoyed the luxury of being able to watch every World Cup game, to watch the European championship and the Champions League live, along with the Premiership, Serie A, La Liga, and the Bundesliga.

They know the sport in a way that those early NASL fans couldn't unless they'd grown up in the shadow of Old Trafford or San Siro. They know where the MLS sits in the game's hierarchy. And they're willing to enjoy the league on its own terms, on its own modest scale. (The addition of a few big name stars -Beckham, Mexican striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who will join Chicago at mid-season - might lure in a few more of the curious, but for the MLS's sake, it can't be more than icing on the cake.)

Those 14,000 fans who have already paid for Toronto FC season's tickets, the others who will help fill BMO Field for every game this season, aren't worried about whether or not anyone in New York is watching, or even about whether their friends and neighbours think it's the hip thing to do.

They're investing in a couple of hours of affordable entertainment, in the opportunity to be part of a real, live, singing soccer crowd, to share in a minority passion by definition, to take a step back.

Someone might well conclude that's a sign of growing up.

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