The honeymoon is over.
BMO Field is often described by MLS players as the most intimidating stadium to play in. It's a reputation the lakefront stadium earned thanks to Toronto FC’s loyal fans who have lent their vociferous support to the Reds and berated visiting teams in equal measure on game days over the past four years.
Saturday’s regular season home finale was an eerily notable exception.
Toronto’s 2-2 draw with the Columbus Crew unfolded inside a disturbingly quiet BMO Field, the announced gathering of 18,084 spectators sounding more like a library than a soccer crowd.
In light of recent events, the surreal and funereal atmosphere shouldn’t come as a surprise to the club’s owners, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Fans want their moneys worth
With hopes of TFC’s first-ever playoff berth fading fast, MLSE made an ill-timed announcement that fans would face a 30 per cent hike in the price of next year’s season ticket packages, which included four extra games.
Fans were outraged that they were being asked to shell out extra money to see a losing team, even more so after last Saturday when Toronto FC was officially eliminated from playoff contention.
In an attempt to quell the growing furor, MLSE wrote an open letter to its fan base earlier this week, apologizing for Toronto FC’s failure to qualify for the playoffs for a fourth straight season and admitting that it "screwed up" in increasing the total number of games for 2011 season ticket packages.
The letter also explained that two games would be removed from the package to lower the costs, and that MLSE chief operating officer Tom Anselmi would meet with TFC supporters in a series of six town hall meetings to address their complaints.
But that didn’t seem to impress a lot of TFC fans who for the majority of Saturday’s match sat and stood in collective silence in an impressive form of protest.
"Actions Not Words"
Three of the club’s major supporter groups — U-Sector, the North End Elite and the Red Patch Boys — usually lead the charge on game days with their constant chanting, singing and banging of drums. But on this sunny afternoon, they were mute and sedate, their voices barely rising above a whisper.
Some fans wore green shirts, instead of the team’s red and white colours, to symbolize what they feel is MLSE’s greed. Boos rang out throughout BMO Field when a message flashed on the scoreboard reminding fans to renew their season tickets. A number of banners were unfurled in the crowd, among them "All For Money" and "Actions Not Words".
And the "boo birds" were out again when the final whistle blew.
Caught in the middle were the players, who in a sincere gesture recognized the support of the home fans by applauding their efforts after the game was over. Only a smattering of people in the stands chose to return the favour.
One can only imagine what BMO Field will be like next Tuesday when the Reds host Panamanian side Arabe Unido in a meaningless CONCACAF Champions League contest. With TFC already eliminated from the tournament, the crowd for the club's final home game of 2010 could make the one for Saturday's match look like a college keg party.
Coach and players sympathize
Toronto FC defender Nana Attakora appreciates why fans are so upset.
"Definitely,100 per cent. We haven’t performed and [season] ticket prices are going up and I don’t blame them," Attakora said.
"If we were a winning team contending for the playoffs, then maybe, OK. But we haven’t been performing and prices are going up — I can understand where they’re coming from."
Interim coach Nick Dasovic also sympathized
"They have their issues and opinions and God bless them, because they’re our customers and they should voice their opinions."
Thoughtful and heartfelt sentiments, to be sure, but as the sign said: Actions Not Words.
Take note, MLSE.