By Ridge Mahoney in Toronto
By the time streamers shot into the sky and fluttered down on Colorado Rapids players, coaches and staff celebrating with the club’s first MLS Cup, the stands are BMO Field in Toronto were mostly empty and the giant, white maple leaf that adorns the center-section seats was barely obscured.
Never before had MLS ventured as far north to stage its grand finale, prompting concerns about weather. Prior to the game Commissioner Don Garber reiterated several times his hope that Toronto FC fans, disgruntled by poor on-field performance and front-office bungling of their team, wouldn’t boycott the event. Had rain come down as forecast, a dreary setting it would have been.
If it wasn’t a perfect storm of adversity, it came close. Pre-selecting a venue months in advance is one facet of league operations under review; as a maturing league ponders how best to market and present its showcase event. With months of lead time , arrangements for transportation, accommodations, ancillary events, etc., are simpler to arrange, but most of the fans at a neutral venue tend to be, well, neutral.
Seattle fans came out in droves last year, despite the disappointing elimination of the first-year Sounders in the conference semifinal, and despite a rather lackluster game between Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles they got a good buzz going at Qwest Field. A wonderfully wild group of a few hundred RSL fans injected the proceedings with their chants and cheers and catcalls aimed at Landycakes, et al.
Some of the BMO faithful Sunday night livened up the mood, and small sections of FCD and Colorado supporters did what they could. It wasn’t a dour occasion by any means yet neither did it fizz.
Proclaimed as a sellout crowd of 21,700, the stands at kickoff were dotted by empty seats. A late Sunday night kickoff (8:55 p.m.) dictated by television, and harsh, windy conditions that included forecasts of rain prompted some fans to stay away. The game itself had its stylish moments, and FC Dallas’ opening goal – a glorious crossfield ball from left back Jair Benitez chested down and crisply served into the goalmouth by Marvin Chavez for league MVP David Ferreira to stab-volley into the net – exuded class.
More common in Colorado's 2-1 win were hard challenges and fearsome collisions: FCD defender George John and Colorado battering-ram Conor Casey clashed heads fiercely not once, but twice. There were more showdowns than show-stoppers, as the rugged Rapids blunted FCD’s creative elements and churned out occasional chances for Casey and others. Overtime kicked off at about 11 p.m., and by then a lot of fans had already fled into the night, braced and bundled against the sharp winds off Lake Ontario buffeting BMO Field.
So goes the risk of staging a late November, cold-weather city championship game, which the league granted to Toronto last March as reward for season after season of consistently full houses. Had TFC been in the final, of course, their rowdy, crazy fans would have come early – camping overnight if permitted to do so -- and stayed late, as they have since the team’s first game in 2007. Their anger over constantly rising ticket prices boiled over earlier this year when promise inspired by the hiring of Preki as head coach deteriorated into another losing season and the dismissal of both Preki – after just 24 games in charge -- and the man who hired him, Mo Johnston.
Commissioner Garber said prior to kickoff he believes the league may be ready to scrap the neutral-site final for a game hosted by the highest surviving seed. The complications imposed by such a switch are onerous -- far less time for fans, sponsors, and teams to schedule their travel plans and broadcast arrangements to be completed, finding hotels and suitable venues for ancillary events, etc., -- but could be mitigated by the raucous, colorful backdrop of home fans cheering and chanting their team to a title.
Yet the home team can lose. The mood might not be all that different with the away team waving and jumping around with a massive piece of silverware. Still, the league could increase the significance of regular-season play by assuring that the higher-seeded team that reaches the final gets to host it. Had that occurred this season, FCD would have hosted Colorado at Pizza Hut Park.
For decades, before the advent of a Super Bowl against the champion of a rival league, the NFL decided its title on the field of a finalist. The sports are vastly different but in no other major American team sport does a title rest on one game. While Garber acknowledges the current MLS playoff format that melds both knockout games (or the conference finals and MLS Cup) and a two-game series (conference semifinals) is somewhat contradictory, he can’t see the benefit of a home-and-away final by which a team could win the title by tying, or even losing, the second game. In the USA, at this stage of the game’s development, that won’t fly.
With the advent of soccer-specific facilities and a growing, passionate core of fans in many cities, Garber believes even with a week's notice, at best, most league teams could pack their venues for a title game. Next season could provide a possible window of opportunity if the league decides to experiment; as the league schedule is currently plotted, the projected date of the final conflicts with a mid-November FIFA international-fixture date.
Since staging its first Super Bowl in 1967, the NFL has used both one-week and two-week windows leading up to the grand finale. If it deems itself ready, MLS could use next season as a test case of a two-week option: determine the two finalists by mid-November, skip the weekend after the FIFA date, and stage its championship a week later in November.
A return to BMO Field next season in such circumstances isn’t likely, as TFC has yet to find replacements for either Johnston or Preki, though it has hired former German international Juergen Klinsmann – spotted in the stands Sunday night – as a consultant. And MLS Cup weather issues have cropped up before: a nor’easter lashed Foxboro Stadium for the inaugural MLS Cup in 1996.
Conditions for a late November finale at Red Bull Arena or PPL Park or a few other venues could be quite crisp, but the weather could be temperate and the scenes could be unforgettable. What if the Sounders were to host the big dance? On the other hand, would MLS and adidas and ESPN want a final at Buck Shaw Stadium? Ouch.
There are plenty of warm-weather options in MLS, but the league does not mandate a host – teams bid for the event and the league chooses the most compelling offer. In a few months, it may decide to give a new format a shot, and present a short-notice host the opportunity to show how far it, and the league, have progressed after 15 seasons.