April 8, 2007 Toronto FC after first game (from Globe and Mail)

POSTED ON: 08/04/07

STEPHEN BRUNT
From Monday's Globe and Mail

CARSON, CALIF. — Now everyone understands a bit better just what it is they've got into, the league, the game, its joys and pitfalls and its strengths and failings.

All in all, it's not bad at all, judging from Toronto FC's debut on Saturday, a decent but losing effort, 2-0, against Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center.

Major League Soccer is something new for Canadians, but in many ways it is really something old, professional sport on a decidedly more modest scale than has become the norm.

They haven't tarted up the ancient game, they have given up on the kind of gimmicks once thought essential to sell footie to North Americans. (They also seem to have lost the flopping, faking and histrionics that plague the sport elsewhere. Good riddance.)

Just put together the best players the league can afford, hope that the fans create the necessary atmosphere, encourage the construction of stadiums with the right capacity, the right intimacy and the proper sightlines and let nature take its course.

That's the same formula they'll be following when FC debuts at home on April 28 in front of a full house at the new BMO Field.

What the club owners, including Larry Tanenbaum of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, learned while watching in person on Saturday was that even a small section of singing, chanting supporters can do the work of a barking public-address system, deafening music, cheerleaders, mascots and all of the other stuff usually deemed essential to entertain the short-attention-span sports fans of the 21st century.

They saw in the first 45 minutes how an expansion team that's still very much a work in progress can put up a credible, entertaining challenge against a pretty decent opponent.

They saw that their coach, Mo Johnston, is not one for claiming moral victories, making excuses or sugar-coating defeat. After the 2-0 loss, he was steaming at what he viewed as a subpar effort by a number of his players. (Asked what he liked about his team's play on a night when most thought they acquitted themselves relatively well, Johnston said, “Not too much.” On bad days, Mo's going to make Sam Mitchell at his testiest seem like Mr. Rogers.)

And Toronto FC's owners had to note that with all of the things the MLS is doing right and all of the things they've done right so far in selling the most season tickets in the league, 14,000, this package is hardly fail-safe.

The stadium was just a little more than half full for Chivas's home opener, on a night when, unlike some other MLS locales over the weekend, there were no weather issues to keep fans home.

Here's a cautionary tale that everyone in the Toronto organization ought to take to heart. Two seasons back, Chivas entered the MLS as an expansion team with what seemed an unbeatable commercial premise: Chivas would tap into the huge Mexican-American football audience in Southern California through a direct tie-in with the storied Guadalajara team in the Mexican League, iconic in part because of its refusal to employ non-Mexican players.

The parent club, not thinking much of the MLS, sent a bunch of third-string and fourth-string reserves to fill out the squad in its first season, with disastrous results. Chivas won only four matches. Last year, it upgraded its Mexican talent, mixed in some better American and foreign players and made the playoffs.

Now, though Chivas's identity is still 100-per-cent Hispanic, it has only four Mexican players on its roster and is clearly struggling to expand its audience beyond the hard-core crew who kept the chants, songs and drumbeats going for the full 90 minutes.

Those supporters were rewarded for their enthusiasm with two goals that would have stood up to aesthetic scrutiny in any league, anywhere. In the first half, Maykel Galindo broke free after taking a lovely through ball from Sacha Kljestan, then laid off a pass to Ante Razov, who scored into the empty net behind Toronto goalkeeper Greg Sutton. Then in the final minutes of the match, Kljestan scored on a booming 30-yard shot that beat Sutton cleanly.

Toronto was unlucky not to open the scoring in the first half, with Chivas 'keeper Brad Guzan making two tough saves on Edson Buddle and another on Paulo Nagamura.

Toronto FC, talented and quick up front, is going to score some goals, especially after the starting 11 get to know each other a bit better. The team is going to give up some up as well, unless Johnston can find a way to fortify his defensive midfield and back line. And it certainly can't afford to lose interest the way it did in a sleepy second half against Chivas.

But the folks who snapped up the tickets in Toronto will forgive those sins this year and are going to be pleased with the product on display. It's not Premier Cru Bordeaux, perhaps, but way better than plonk, a decent bottle capable of happy surprises — and the best to be found close to home.

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