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SoccerCanadian MLS teams are a big draw

Posted: Monday, March 19, 2012 | 10:38 AM

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Davy Arnaud (22) of the Impact scores on Fire keeper Paolo Tornaghi in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images) Davy Arnaud (22) of the Impact scores on Fire keeper Paolo Tornaghi in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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They will say it was a fluke and could never happen again. On a single day, Canada's three Major League Soccer franchises were watched by more than 100,000 fans.

They will say it was a fluke and could never happen again. The cynics will claim it is irrelevant and bears no relation to reality. They are, of course, right in part, but they cannot argue with the facts.
 
The evidence is irrefutable. On a single day, Canada's three Major League Soccer franchises were watched by more than 100,000 fans. The vast majority were in Montreal and Seattle, but it was the four men and a dog who ventured out in the pouring rain in Carson, Calif., who actually tipped the scale.
 
I have checked my numbers with lottery-like precision. Discounting the aforementioned dog, but adding the seven thousand hardy souls who paid to watch the Vancouver Whitecaps' first-ever MLS road win, the cumulative total adds up to 105,344 spectators. 
 
So what prompted this mass love-in for Canadian soccer? Well, of course, the stars aligned on the weekend and it's only fair to admit that not all the patrons were supporting Canada's teams. However, numbers on this scale have rarely been seen since the heyday of the old NASL.
 
Montreal's return to the top flight of the North American game was an event not to be missed. Toronto FC's trip to the Pacific northwest coincided with the Seattle Sounders' home opener and the Home Depot Center is far more sparsely populated when Beckham, Donovan and Keane are out of town.
 
The Montreal Impact, the league's 19th franchise, threw down the gauntlet. Montreal challenged its citizens to top the attendance record set by the Manic for a 1981 playoff game. Hardened fans mixed with those curious to know what all the fuss was about. The net result was a new benchmark for a professional game in Quebec. The Impact's marketers must now strike while the iron is hot and attempt to convert the inquisitive into regular fans.
 
The Impact is, of course, nothing new. The team has existed for nearly twenty years and can reflect on a successful period as one of the leading lights in second-tier soccer. In recent years, average home attendances have hovered around the 12,000 mark -- a far cry from the vast numbers which swarmed the Olympic Stadium to celebrate the arrival of MLS.
 
The fact is Montreal doesn't need all those fans. There simply won't be room for them all when the renovations are complete at the Stade Saputo, next door to the Big O. The more intimate surroundings of the Impact's real home will seat just over 20,000 when Montreal hosts its second home opener, scheduled for June.
 
In the meantime, its cavernous neighbour will be well filled for a series of eye catching attractions. Toronto FC is the next visitor in early April and Canada's original MLS franchise will ship several thousand travelling fans up Highway 401. David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy and Thierry Henry's New York Red Bulls should also draw well at the bigger facility. 
 
Back in Toronto, they are also preparing to downsize. A monster crowd of over 47,000 recently filled the Rogers Centre for TFC's CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final, more than twice the capacity of its regular BMO Field home. The success of that event was a timely boost for a club whose lack of progress on the field has taken its toll at the box office.
 
The days of the 'golden ticket' are long gone down by the lakeshore. By and large, those Torontonians who wanted to sample soccer's boisterous atmosphere have now been there and done that. But there's no doubt the Champions League game against Los Angeles will have reinvigorated some and tempted others to support Season 6 on a more regular basis.
 
On the west coast, they are ready to turn the tide. So far, so good for the Whitecaps, who are still getting used to their palatial new surroundings at the expensively refurbished B.C. Place. Vancouver enjoyed terrific backing in its abysmal expansion year and is naturally keen to repay the supporters' loyalty.
 
A new coach and a handful of new players have started as they mean to continue. Ultimately, there is nothing like a winning team to get the fans flocking in.

I would venture to suggest the Whitecaps look to be the strongest of Canada's three teams in terms of personnel, but I seem to recall thinking much the same this time last year. We all know how that turned out.
 
Vancouver must also travel the more difficult road. For several years, the MLS Western conference has been stronger than its Eastern counterpart and I don't see the balance shifting significantly in 2012. The unbalanced schedule, though, means the Whitecaps will be meeting the best of the West more often. Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Salt Lake are all good box office, but first-year MLS coach Martin Rennie faces a considerable challenge to keep his team competitive.
 
Three Canadian clubs who just want to be loved. Spring is here and love is in the air, but is it the start of a long term relationship or merely a fling which will fizzle by fall?

Only time has the answer.

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