After Toronto FC's final home game, which featured Danny Dichio’s last minute lob against New England, hundreds of fans spontaneously invaded the field to celebrate and demonstrate their collective commitment to the cause.
In truth there was little to celebrate. Toronto FC, then an expansion team in Major League Soccer, had just finished last in the overall standings, boasting just six wins and an embarrassing goal-drought that eclipsed all previous records. Yet, in that moment, the stats didn’t seem to matter.
Whatever happened on the pitch, the fans did their part in creating the best atmosphere in the league and they were ready to party. TFC was their team, this was their house and they were not going home for the winter until their voices were hoarse.
Looking down from the broadcast booth it all seemed slightly surreal. In my career I’ve witnessed plenty of last day ‘pitch-invasions’ but none like this. I’ve seen fans kiss the turf, delirious with joy after watching their team win a championship, celebrate promotion, or escape relegation. Until that moment in October 2007, I had never witnessed fans pay homage to the worst team in the league.
Twelve months on it’s entirely possible Toronto FC could pick up the MLS ‘wooden-spoon’ for the second straight year. Despite numerous changes in personnel both on and off the field, the net result may be the same in 2008. Many fans are rightly frustrated by the perceived lack of progress - some have even gone so far as to give up their season tickets. Others, meanwhile, preach patience. Surely expectations are simply too high for a franchise not yet two years old.
It’s no coincidence manager Mo Johnston announced the club would have a designated player for 2009 just as the clock ticked down to the renewal deadline. MLSE may not know much about soccer, but it most certainly does know how to market an under-performing team. The suits at the Air Canada Centre have had plenty of practice over the years with the Maple Leafs after all.
Let’s put this in perspective. In a year in which the Vancouver Whitecaps have clinched the USL Championship and the Montreal Impact have made major progress in the CONCACAF Champions League after winning the Canadian Championship, are there really are any reasons to be cheerful in Toronto?
I believe there are.
Reasons for optimism
Despite choppy waters, tangible improvement is being made just below the surface, which should serve TFC well for years to come. The formation of academy teams, for example, can only be of benefit, not only to Toronto as a team but Canadian soccer as a whole. Player development is critical to the future growth of the game in this country. Everywhere else on the planet it is the clubs which turn the raw talent into mature professionals - that model must be adopted and fully embraced in Canada.
A state of the art gym and professional player fitness management has resulted in major improvement under the guidance of Paul Winsper. Muscle injuries have been few and far between compared to last year and the job of a head coach is always easier if he has a fully fit squad battling for starting positions.
And let’s not underestimate the sheer passion, which has made coach John Carver a hero for many fans and, frankly, a pain in the backside for many MLS referees and fourth-officials.
Whatever you think about his team selection or its style of play, there is no question about his personal obsession to improve the product under his leadership. Carver doesn’t need to stay in Toronto - he’s had offers to return to the UK - but he chooses to remain in Canada. No one is more demanding or expectant than Carver - he wants to see the job through, and for that alone he deserves credit.
It remains to be seen whether the fans will party on the pitch again after Saturday’s final home game against Chicago (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 3:30 p.m. ET). They know the honeymoon is over - the marriage may have become a little stale - but devotion runs deep. Expect some croaky voices at work on Monday.
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