Why Toronto FC?
For some time, I have tried to get into MLS* without much luck, not because I do not love the sport – I have been a lifelong football and Tottenham Hotspur fan (those two are not always mutually exclusive, I assure you) – but rather as I lacked any affiliation to a team. This was not an easy process however, I could not force the issue to pick any club, there had to be a compelling reason for me to support them. Of my other rooting interests, I have been a Tottenham fan as long as I can remember; picked the Green Bay Packers when I started following the NFL in the early 1990s as they seemed a good alternative to the star-studded Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers; and started watching baseball during the 1996 World Series, chose the Yankees as my team rather than the Braves, since New York was the city I wanted to live in one day. In all three cases, however I have come to support a club, once I am a fan I will not change my team, so I did not just want to pick a franchise randomly.
*One thing I have learned early on is not to refer to it as “the MLS” which makes sense as that would be “the Major League Soccer”.
Geographically, supporting NY Red Bulls made the most sense, but then they went and signed Thierry Henry as their star player, eliminating them as a contender for my support as I could not root for someone who was such a legend at Spurs’ most hated rivals, Arsenal. Inevitably, the connection had to come from Spurs and, during my time as a season ticket holder at Tottenham – from January 2002 until my move to Brooklyn in April 2007 – there were two diminutive strikers who ranked as the top two scorers I had seen in person for Spurs, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe. Keane was the first of these two to move to Major League Soccer, but he joined the L.A. Galaxy who had become a super-popular team when David Beckham moved to them in 2007, so that felt like a full bandwagon on which to attempt to jump. There was a supposed theory that many Tottenham managers had that the two short strikers could not play together up front – a fact that I always disagreed with considering the regularity with which they banged in the goals when they first partnered each other in 2003 – but of the pair, I was always a bigger fan of Defoe and wanted him to start every match. When it was announced this January that the England forward would be moving to Toronto FC, I was gutted that he would no longer be a Spurs player – even though he was hardly getting a game in the league this season, I still felt confident in his ability to get goals whenever he made it onto the pitch. However, Defoe’s arrival in MLS meant that finally I had an allegiance to a team in the league – starting with the 2014 season I would be Toronto FC’s newest fan.
Grasping the Basics
I am completely aware that new fans to a club can be welcomed, but also treated with disdain by those who have been there for a while, which in the case of Toronto FC, can be since the start since the franchise was founded in 2006. However, for any die-hard U-sectors or Red Patch Boys, let me assure you that I am not taking this lightly and henceforth will be rooting for
your our team, even if Defoe ends up being traded or sold. I would recommend a reciprocal deal where Toronto FC fans could start supporting Tottenham Hotspur, but I am not sure you would thank me in the long run.
While I know the sport of football/soccer inside out, in order not to sound like an idiot when talking about MLS I needed to learn a few things about the league and in particular, Toronto FC. My first panic came when I realized I could not remember what their nickname was, thinking that it was going to be something like the Toronto Moose, so I was somewhat relieved when I search-engined it and found out that I had not forgotten it, rather they did not have one and it was simply Toronto FC. While this is classy and separates them from clubs that are named after an energy drink, it did get me wondering what nickname they could have used – my suggestions: Toronto Rob Fords (when you have a memorable Mayor you might as well use it); or the Toronto Floods (mainly because my one trip to the city last summer coincided with the heaviest storms in a century that led to a deluge of rain and provided the worst driving conditions I’ve ever experienced). The other thing I learned was that the team’s primary color is red, which gave me pause since that aligns them in my mind with Arsenal and, as I have already covered, any connection to them is not something that will endear me to a club. However, their home strip includes a Maple Leaf worked into the front which actually looks cool, so I will just try to forgo my negative feelings towards red and will only consider an away kit should I want to back up my newfound support with a purchase.
First Match vs Seattle Sounders
For some reason, Toronto FC did not play on the first weekend of the 2014 MLS season (there may have been a good reason, but I did not look it up to figure out why) so their opening fixture of the campaign came on March 15th, away at the Sounders. Before the game, Jermain Defoe was interviewed by NBCSN, who were covering the match live, and he stated the main thing was that the team got all three points, which – just for a moment – seemed to give him pause, as it did me, wondering if that was the reward for winning a match in Major League Soccer (it is), as it is in the European leagues. With the announcement of the team sheets, I was able to latch onto some familiar names: for Seattle, former Tottenham player Clint Dempsey (to whom I had no such affinity as I do for Defoe, although he did score the winner at Old Trafford and a late equalizer at home against Manchester United during his brief time at the club); ex-Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins; and the worst player to ever win the Champions League (with Liverpool in 2005) Djimi Traore. As for the Toronto FC lineup, alongside Defoe the other big offseason signing was Michael Bradley, son of the former US national team manager, Bob Bradley, who had been plying his trade with Roma before his return to MLS; ex-Burnley (and several other English clubs) defender Steven Caldwell, the side’s captain; and Brazilian goalkeeper Julius Cesar, who is on loan from Queens Park Rangers. Another familiar face came in the Toronto dugout, as former Blackburn and New Zealand captain, Ryan Nelsen is the manager of the Canadian club and he looks about as old as he did during his playing days.
Following both the American and Canadian national anthems, plus the information that MLS is currently utilizing replacement referees since there is a dispute with the regular officials, the game kicked off and for the opening 15 minutes, Seattle looked like a much more balanced team while Toronto FC appeared like a group of players who had just been thrown together and had not yet gelled as a unit. The Sounders fans – in the same stadium as the much vaunted Seahawks supporters who hold the record for crowd decibel level – were boisterous and made plenty of noise themselves, though it did at times sound like a computer game interpretation of what chants are like. At one point, the TV cameras showed a man in front of his fellow Seattle fans with a microphone leading the cheers – which would seem a bit like cheating if it was not for the constant pumping in of music into English football grounds that is in part killing traditional atmospheres (one particularly unworthy mention, Bolton Wanderers whose ground I liked when I went there for a league cup tie, but they have two guys with giant flags running up the touchline whenever they score while the public address system pumped in “I feel good”).
Despite their poor start, Toronto FC took the lead in the 17th minute when Jonathan Osorio played a perfectly weighted ball through to Jermain Defoe, who did what he does best by taking a touch and then dispatching the ball into the back of the net. Six minutes later, a loose ball by Clint Dempsey again went to Defoe and the ex-Spurs striker quickly had his second of the match, showing – in the words of Don Draper – “that is what the money is for”. For the remainder of the first-half, Toronto settled and were the better team, with impressive performances from Michael Bradley in the middle, plus Brazilian winger Jackson Goncalves and defender Donell Henry, who has been with the club for 5 years, though he is still only 20. After the break, Seattle applied the pressure and for the first time in the match, Obafemi Martins was showing signs of his old predatory instinct, turning and getting a shot in under pressure in the box, but Cesar was able to smother the effort. On another occasion, Martins was played through and it took a great block from Steven Caldwell to deny the Nigerian a goal, but the former Newcastle striker was involved when the Sounders did finally get on the scoresheet. Dempsey – who had three separate incidents where he kicked or punched a Toronto player after the ball was gone – and Martins linked up on 68 minutes and the American midfielder took the chance well to cut the deficit in half, leading to a nervy final 20 minutes for Ryan Nelsen’s side as they attempted to gain their first opening day victory to an MLS season, having lost on their previous seven such fixtures.
In the end, Toronto FC were able to hold on to get the three points and start their season off with a win, despite them not having played particularly well outside of a 20 minute spell in the first-half. As for Defoe, he was not too involved in the match aside from scoring the two chances he had, but that is what you want him in your team for and his clinical finishing is something that Tottenham will be missing for the remainder of this season and beyond. If the side can start getting to know each other and become a cohesive unit, they should have the talent to make the playoffs this season…well I am guessing that because this was the first MLS match I have watched from start to finish. Regardless, they henceforth have my support so – Let’s go, Toronto!