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Hope Returns North of the Border
by Ridge Mahoney, June 6th, 2007 6:38PM

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TAGS:  international, mls, under-20 world cup


As MLS savors the rabid reaction to Toronto FC, Canadian Soccer Association officials are planning to use BMO Field and the FIFA U-20 World Cup as catalysts for a revival of their national team programs.

Through the window of his condominium, Toronto FC captain Jim Brennan can see the home of Major League Soccer's newest franchise and what many people hope is the centerpiece of a Canadian soccer revival.

Raucous, colorful crowds are packing BMO Field to sing, chant and cheer as TFC embarks on its inaugural season. The stadium hosted the Canadian under-20 team May 11 against its counterparts from Argentina in a prelude to the FIFA U-20 World Cup to be played in Toronto and five other Canadian cities this summer; a day later TFC scored its first goals and posted its first MLS win by beating Chicago, 3-1.

A blizzard of what seemed to be Frisbees commemorated Danny Dichio's goal after TFC played the first 384 minutes of its existence without scoring. Team staff members and security personnel scurried to pick up the thousands of seat cushions excited fans had flung onto the field. Showers of red-and-white confetti dotted the end lines behind the goals. The artificial surface, a new version of Field Turf, plays almost like the real thing, according to several players.

It was a red-letter day for the red and white.

"We are the Canadian representative [in MLS] and the Canadians will be supporting us," says Brennan, a native of nearby Newmarket who came home after playing in England for a decade. "It will help the national team a lot. We've got a lot of younger guys coming up and this gives players who don't get a chance to go over to Europe something to strive for locally.

"Fans will be watching Canadian players all the time and plus, we've got a soccer-specific stadium now. That helps even more."

Yet more than a sparkly, shiny new facility and bubbling optimism over a professional expansion team will be needed to turn around soccer north of the border. Canada hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1986, when a solid group of players honed by competition in the North American Soccer League reached the finals in Mexico.

"The NASL was a main reason we qualified, no question," says former international midfielder Bobby Lenarduzzi, who was born in Vancouver and played for the Whitecaps until they, and the league, folded after the 1984 season. "Playing against some of the best players in the world on a regular basis certainly gave us the experience and the confidence to do well in qualifying."

THEN AND NOW. Much of CONCACAF has left behind Canadian men's soccer in the two decades since Mexico '86. Canada has reached the final round of World Cup qualifying only twice. The United States is the major power, Mexico is still formidable, and Costa Rica, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago have qualified for World Cups since Canada's only appearance.

Months after posting a stunning win in the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Canada failed to advance from a CONCACAF World Cup semifinal qualifying group that included Panama, Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico. Four years later, it finished last in a semifinal group that included Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Many top Canadian players compete in Europe, just as do their American counterparts, but the Canadian Soccer Association has yet to commit the resources necessary to lift its national team out of inconsistency and mediocrity. The CSA hired former international Frank Yallop as its national team coach in 2004, but he left last year to take over for Steve Sampson in Los Angeles.

"Aside from our qualifying matches, I could only play a handful of games in Canada," says Yallop. "Obviously, with the players in Europe, you can schedule camps and games over there, but without a core of players based in Canada that you can start with and add in the European players, it was very difficult to get a foundation and really build anything."

Longtime CSA executive Kevan Pipe resigned earlier this year. Another former Canadian international, Dale Mitchell, will coach the under-20s at the world championships and oversee the staff coaches in charge of the men's team at the Gold Cup.

Whereas Canadian players sprinkled throughout the NASL -- with teams on either side of the border, as the league mandated a certain percentage of North Americans had to play in each game -- spurred Canada's qualification for the 1986 World Cup, CSA President Colin Linford hopes Toronto FC and the under-20 world championships will be magnets for investment in the Canadian game as well as player development.

"The marketplace right now is not good for bringing money in," says Linford. "We're having to pay for most of our own games on television now. You have to generate revenue at the gate to be able to pay for your fans to watch you at home."

Linford says the CSA's annual operating budget of between $4 million and $5 million (Canadian) is eaten up by organizational costs incurred in running operations for approximately 800,000 registered players. "To really fund the men's national team and the women's national team and the youth teams and really do it properly, we'd probably need $7 million or $8 million," he says.

"We need some major sponsors, heavy hitters, to basically take over those teams, and then you really split those teams off from the rest of it. Sponsors might well see the game as something that they can get their businesses involved in. It's always been big at the grassroots level, but we really need sponsors to move in and sponsor national teams and things of that nature. The men's national team and the women's national team need money to pay for the number of games they have to play to be competitive."

Canada is competitive on the female side. The Canadian U-19 women's team finished runner-up to the USA as host -- and drew some large crowds -- at the 2002 world championships, and Canada reached the semifinals for the first time at the 2003 Women's World Cup.

But as U.S. Soccer learned after the 1996 Olympics and 1999 Women's World Cup, the women's game doesn't yet have the clout to lure lucrative, long-term sponsorships. After three years of heavy losses, the WUSA folded in 2003, on the eve of that year's Women's World Cup, and more modest financial benchmarks are being drawn up for a relaunch next year.

The long journey back to competitiveness for the men's team has to start somewhere, and Linford sees BMO Field as its launch point.

"There definitely is a buzz around Toronto in regards to soccer at the moment," he says. "Everything's positive in regards to Toronto FC."

TFC FEVER. Once it won the bid to host the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the CSA accelerated efforts to build a host stadium for the competition, as mandated by FIFA. Federal funding would be forthcoming, once a location had been found.

A proposal to build at the University of Toronto fell apart, as did a plan for the nearby suburb of York. Hovering on the edge of the radar screen was Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE), owner of the NBA Raptors and NHL Maple Leafs, which had also been monitoring MLS.

"The stadium was a CSA project," says Tom Anselmi, executive vice president and chief operating officer of MLSE. ."They did all the upfront work and secured the government funding. That was unfolding at the same time as we started looking at a franchise. We were well aware of MLS and had even looked at it a number of years ago.

"The two things were sort of happening on parallel tracks and they needed a location for the stadium, and an additional funding partner, because the government funding wasn't enough. With the CSA, we rallied the city and ourselves and created this three-way partnership that included all three levels of government. The city stepped in with the land, and we stepped in with money, and a long-term tenant created the viability of the stadium. We ended up with what I think is a really cool public-private partnership."

The city of Toronto, the province of Ontario, MLSE and the Canadian government pooled $US 64.5 million to build the stadium. Naming rights as well as a jersey sponsorship were sold to BMO Financial Group and season-ticket sales were already moving crisply when the David Beckham announcement shook the game on both sides of the border.

"We were sitting at 7,200 season tickets and lo and behold, the Beckham announcement comes, and we spike at 3,400 tickets in five days," says Anselmi, who assisted in the process of hiring head coach Mo Johnston yet leaves most of the day-to-day club details to director of business operations Paul Beirne. "We cut it off at 14,000 so we have enough tickets for groups and singles and mini-packs and all those other things."

Most matches are projected to be sellouts, and also sold out are 30 luxury suites at an average price of $30,000 per year. More suites are being planned to meet the demand of companies and businesses on a waiting list.

Toronto FC jerseys sold so fast supplies ran out between the first and second home games.

"The red and white colors weren't by accident," Anselmi says of the team motif that mirrors that of the Canadian flag. "Ultimately we hope other teams in Canada will join MLS, because that will make for a better competitive landscape."

Nearly half of the Toronto's population -- 2.48 million in the city itself, 5 million in the greater Toronto area -- was born outside Canada. Large Scottish, Greek, Italian and Asian communities make it one of the most diverse cities in the world.

"Soccer is very well-penetrated here at the participation level, there's a lot of it on television," says Anselmi, adding that about 500 games a year are available. "Most of the people born somewhere else come from countries where soccer is the No. 1 sport, so we knew that soccer had a lot of appeal here."

"Voracious appetite" might be more appropriate than "appeal." Newspaper and television coverage cranked up a year ago when Johnston was hired and several reporters and TV crews were in Indianapolis for the SuperDraft. That the team lost its home opener, 1-0, to Kansas City April 28 -- a fourth straight defeat -- scarcely tainted an atmosphere just this side of delirious.

"It was a scene I didn't think I'd see for quite some time," said league commissioner Don Garber. "The Toronto Star said it was 'Total Fandemonium.' That city was absolutely packed with red and Toronto FC excitement. That was the first time I really felt a team's presence in a city throughout the weekend.

"Taking the trolley from downtown to the game and seeing people lining the streets and sitting in pubs with their Toronto FC scarves on was absolutely thrilling. The stadium is terrific, the downtown location is spectacular, the environment is terrific."

Johnston, who won an MLS title as a player with Kansas City in 2000 and left Red Bull New York last year in midseason with a 5-4-8 overall record, has ruthlessly overhauled his roster. Every one of the 10 players he took in the expansion draft is gone. He used an allocation -- reluctantly -- to bring Conor Casey to MLS from Germany, and before the home opener traded him to Colorado. Marvell Wynne, taken by Johnston as the No. 1 pick in the 2006 SuperDraft, arrived from New York in just one of several other trades.

Toronto FC will vacate BMO Field for about a month in early summer to accommodate the under-20 championships, and buzz is building.

"There are already over 700,000 tickets sold across the country," said Linford six weeks prior to the start of the tournament, "and the first [Canada] game being played on July 1, Canada Day, in the new stadium will definitely be a big occasion.

"We haven't been able to generate much in the way of gate receipts from the national team playing games in Canada, which is unusual. Hopefully with the stadium and support for soccer in Toronto, at least, we can be looking for capacity attendances and instead of losing money when the national team plays in Canada, it will help generate revenues.

"The fact that Toronto FC is in the newspapers, soccer is now in the newspapers, which is a good sign. We haven't had this before and we have to capitalize on it."

(This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)



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