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Grand finale heads north for first time
by Ridge Mahoney, March 30th, 2010 8:34PM

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TAGS:  canada, mls, soccer business, toronto fc

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[MLS] Shiny, spiffy, brand-new Red Bull Arena will have to wait to stage an MLS Cup. And that’s probably a good thing.

A week after Commissioner Don Garber hinted during a teleconference call with reporters that the league’s championship game would be staged north of the border, an official announcement came Tuesday of a Nov. 21 title match at BMO Field in Toronto.

“Three years ago, BMO opened with the FIFA under-20s,” said Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment executive vice-president and COO Tom Anselmi at a press conference. “In 2008, Toronto and Toronto FC hosted MLS All-Star [Game]. Last year, TFC hosted a friendly with arguably the biggest club in professional sports, Real Madrid.

“This year, we’ve invested over $3 million in grass, we’ve added 1,400 seats, we’ve built dugouts and a number of improvements to BMO Field, and this fall, we’re going to host the 2010 Cup.” Toronto FC has also sold out every league game and most other matches played at the venue since it opened in April 2007.

In a conference call last week, Garber had hinted Toronto was the likely choice. “Toronto is certainly a good prospect for MLS Cup,” he said. “We think they have the same dynamic that exists in Seattle with a very knowledgeable and passionate fan base that is very committed to both the team and the sport.”

After downplaying the chances of Red Bull Arena -- which opened earlier this month -- so that its transportation and logistical kinks could be worked out, he referred to the weather issue by telling an anecdote from last year’s MLS Cup, staged on a Qwest Field surface slickened by rain during a typical Seattle week of overcast skies and precipitation. Anselmi was monitoring the skies, as well.

“I will say that we remain a bit concerned about weather, but I did get an e-mail in the middle of MLS Cup last year from Tom Anselmi,” said Garber. “As the weather was storming in Seattle, his e-mail said, ‘Just want you to know that it’s 55 degrees and sunny here in Canada.’ So, we paid attention to that stat.’”

With the weather issue more or less resolved, the fact BMO Field has been converted from FieldTurf to grass also played a role in the league’s decision. Staging the 2008 All-Star Game just two days after Toronto FC played Montreal in a Nutrilite Canadian Championship qualifier – both games drew packed houses -- further strengthened the case for Toronto.

The league has staged its championship game in recently opened stadiums; MLS Cup 2003 was played at Home Depot Center just five months after its first match, and Pizza Hut Park wasn’t quite finished when it hosted the 2005 title game. MLS waited more than two years to play an MLS Cup in Columbus Crew Stadium (opened in 1999, hosted MLS Cup in 2001).

Rather than let their Eastern Conference rival get the jump on them, maybe MLSE officials said to their Red Bull counterparts, in effect, “We were here first, so get in line, and wait your turn.”

Despite a raucous atmosphere generated at the 2009 final, the league absorbed criticism for its decision to stage the championship game on an artificial surface for the first time. Garber responded noncommittally, though he didn’t specifically mention FieldTurf, last November upon being asked if Seattle would host again in 2010.

When Anselmi last year announced the decision to switch to grass for the 2010 season, he cited timing as well as demand, since artificial surfaces normally wear out and need to be replaced after a few years of use. MLSE also had to pay about $250,000 last year to install a temporary grass surface for a Real Madrid exhibition game; with a permanent grass field situated in a cosmopolitan city renowned for its soccer appetite, more foreign teams – as well as Canada’s national teams -- will head to Toronto. And so will the league’s grand finale.

“I can’t say that we won’t ever have an MLS Cup at Red Bull Arena,” said Garber last week. “It just won’t be this year.”



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