April 27, 2007 MLS Toronto FC--BMO field (from Globe and Mail)

POSTED ON: 27/04/07
Brunt: BMO Field offers a true home for soccer
From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The last time a field made this much difference, the spectral Shoeless Joe was stepping out of the corn.

Often, too much is made of the places where professional sports franchises carry out their business. Occasionally, there's novelty value in a new address, sometimes a period of mourning follows the abandonment of a shrine, and there's no denying paying customers notice the amenities, or the lack thereof.

But when was the last time in sports that it was really all about the surroundings, the way it is with the unveiling of BMO Field Saturday afternoon? The opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore?

There are plenty of people who lament the passing of the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens, but who understood the time had come to move on. When the Montreal Expos moved from Jarry Park to the Olympic Stadium, the Toronto Blue Jays from the Ex to the SkyDome, the old digs were regarded as quaint but inadequate, the new as wonders of the sporting world.

In all of those cases, fan allegiances carried over without missing a beat, at least in the short term. And these days, the very notion that a building or a ballpark might in itself be an attraction has been pretty much eliminated by all of the rinks and faux-old baseball stadiums with sushi stands and microbrews it's all good, and it's all pretty much the same.

The difference here and now is that, more than a game, more than a team or a league, what's luring so many is the possibility of an experience they've never been able to enjoy this close to home.

BMO Field is located very close to where Exhibition Stadium once stood on the Toronto waterfront. Walking around the place, empty, it's been impossible to get a true sense of what it might or might not be like, full. These certainly aren't palatial digs. The stadium betrays the fact that it was built relatively cheaply. Compared even with the future home of David Beckham, the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., the Toronto stadium seems a bit spartan.

The point is, though, that this is a soccer (all right, fine football) stadium, not something else masquerading as one, and that the excitement around the arrival of Toronto FC has more to do with that than with the team, its players or Major League Soccer. (Given FC's sad-sack start to the season 0-3 and no goals scored that's a good thing for the owners.) It's been a surprise to many how well the franchise has done selling tickets, capping its season subscribers at 14,000 in a 19,500-seat building, with the real possibility of selling out every game in this inaugural year. But it's not really so shocking if you understand the audience into which they've tapped.

This isn't, by and large, the Old World football crowd. It isn't the gang who turn up their noses at anything less than the Premiership or Serie A. These are people whose kids probably play, who have tuned into the world game on television in a way that was impossible during the days when the North American Soccer League was trying and failing to grab a permanent foothold in the continent. They watch games from England and Italy and Spain, Germany and Mexico and South America. They get swept up in the tournaments at World Cup time and during the European championships, and religiously follow the Champions League.

What they see watching those games is not just the very best skill that the sport has to offer, but those great stadiums filled with singing, chanting fans, an atmosphere that seems so alive, so organic compared with the packaged sports entertainment assault that has become the norm.

They'll be trooping out Saturday afternoon to (aside from the zealots) watch a bunch of players they don't really know, in a league they don't really follow. But that won't matter, just so long as they feel a part of something, as long as that steel and plastic, filled with fans, gives just a little taste of what its like to sit in Stamford Bridge or the San Siro.

The intimacy of the surrounding will deliver some of that, the very fact that the game is being played not in a converted this or a too-big that, but in its own, boutique ballpark.

More important, though, is what is going to have to come from the ground up, from the supporters themselves, so eager to be part of something just a little bit different from the sea of silent dark suits on hockey nights at the Air Canada Centre.

Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg proposition. But for Toronto FC to be successful over the long haul, the sound, the feel and the place have to come before there's a product on the field worth singing about.

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