By Ridge Mahoney
I know it's ridiculously early in the MLS season to get too giddy about anything, but the signs north of the border are glowingly positive.
Montreal has already equaled its grand total of two road victories last year by winning in Seattle and Portland on back-to-back weekends. Like the Impact, Vancouver is also 2-0, with the revival of previously maligned DP Kenny Miller and performance of Japanese midfielder Daigo Kobayashi energizing the fan base.
Toronto FC, the first Canadian MLS entrant, bears the stigma of failing to reach the playoffs in each of the six seasons since joining the league in 2007. But so far, TFC 2013 looks like a transformed team under new head coach Ryan Nelsen. It put up a good effort in its opener, a 1-0 loss in Vancouver, and efficiently topped the defending conference champion, Sporting Kansas City, 2-1, last weekend with two goals by newly signed forward Robbie Earnshaw.
As MLS grapples with its rules of how to classify Canadian players – they are considered domestic players if employed by Canadian teams but not if they play south of the border – and other issues faced by Americans playing for Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, a new dynamic is forming. The Canadian contingent is establishing its presence.
Stronger Canadian teams will not only sharpen the competition for playoff spots. It will also ratchet up pressure on several American laggards to boost their attendances and finances, and perhaps accelerate the signing of Designated Players. While none of the teams has splashed out anything close to the sums spent for David Beckham, Thierry Henry or Rafael Marquez, TFC did sign Julian de Guzman for an initial salary of about $1.9 million, and last year paid Torsten Frings approximately $2.4 million.
More so on a per-capita basis than their American counterparts, the Canadian teams have been aggressive in signing DPs, and in the cases of former Whitecap Barry Robson and Mustapha Jarju, for example, cutting them loose when they under-performed.
You can say, rightly, those were bad moves, yet they were quickly corrected and in any case, show ambition if not necessarily wisdom. Montreal has gone very European in its foreign signings, and took the extreme step of dismissing head coach Jesse Marsch after a promising first season in favor of Swiss-born Marco Schallibaum. TFC took a major step by hiring Kevin Payne away from D.C. United, and Payne shocked the world again by hiring Nelsen, the defensive linchpin of United's 2004 championship team.
The Canadian teams are also out-performing many of their U.S. rivals at the gate, even if the expansion bumps enjoyed by Vancouver (2011) and Montreal (2012) are discounted. A sixth straight losing season dropped the average attendance in Toronto to an all-time low of 18,155 after it had regularly topped 20,000. Though that average TFC crowd dropped below the league average (18,803) for the first time, it’s still a figure several MLS teams have yet to attain since they joined the league.
In its expansion season, Montreal drew 22,772 fans per game, third-best in MLS. Vancouver (19,475) ranked sixth as it became the first Canadian team to qualify for the playoffs. TFC’s all-time low figure landed it right in the middle, 10th, amongst the 19 teams. So why did MLS rebuff Canadian inquiries for about a decade, until forces converged by which BMO Field was built to house Toronto FC and several games of the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup?
For better or worse, the founding fathers of MLS were reluctant to head north until every U.S. possibility had been researched. Considering they flirted with not one but two cities in Oklahoma – Edmond and Tulsa – as well as San Antonio before getting serious about Canada tells you something about their preferences.
Yet as early as 1997 efforts were underway in Vancouver to eventually lure an MLS team. Though a proposed waterfront stadium that would have seated approximately 24,000 never came to fruition, and Toronto nicked the first Canadian MLS entry in 2007, the ‘Caps finally made the jump from the second tier to MLS in 2011, along with Northwest rival Portland.
“I understood that they were looking at being an American league, but if you look at North American sport, all the major leagues encompass Canadian clubs,” says Vancouver president Bob Lenarduzzi, a native of British Colombia who was a teenager on the first Whitecaps team that began play in the old North American Soccer League in 1974. “If you look at the markets that had soccer teams there was success in all of those markets. In our case, having Vancouver match up with Portland, or Seattle and Portland, I thought would have been in any league.”
Vancouver has its geographical MLS rivals on the West Coast; Toronto and Montreal are not far from several U.S. rivals on the opposite side of the continent.
And there’s a palpable tension whenever the Canadian teams play each other. Rivalries established in the NASL have been fueled sporadically by encounters in the lower divisions as well as a Canadian mini-tournament to determine the nation’s entrant in the Concacaf Champions League. It also doesn’t hurt that those cites have long-standing rivalries in hockey and Canadian football. Yet the passion for soccer isn’t confined to intra-Canada showdowns, as was shown in 2008 when more than 2,000 TFC fans made the eight-hour trek to see their team in Columbus. Seeing so much red amongst the black-and-yellow helped convince separate Crew fan groups to ban together.
Impact captain Davy Arnaud grew up in Texas, attended West Texas A&M, and had played his entire pro career in Kansas City prior to be being traded to Montreal in November, 2011. He didn’t need much time to sense how different life was north of the border. The weather was just part of it.
“Yeah, you felt that right from the start,” says Arnaud, who admits preseason training outdoors in early February severely tests his Texas blood. “Even the first time we played Toronto, the guys who had been here previously and been involved with the club were telling you it’s a big game. During the games you get the sense of how important it is to the clubs and to the fans.”
Success on the field and at the gate makes the Canadian contingent, small though it is, extremely important to MLS.