When former mayor and zealous soccer fan David Miller publicly returned his season tickets last year, it wasn’t because the team was losing; it was because they were full of quit. This spring, thanks to a renewed vision and a roster of star players, things are looking up, way up, for Toronto FC. Here, Miller’s personal tale of loving and losing—and taking another chance on his team.
Holy sh*t, it’s Jermain effing Defoe.
That’s what I thought when Defoe took the field for Toronto FC on March 15 in our first game this year. One of the great natural goal scorers in the world, from the legendary English club Tottenham Hotspur, was playing for us. And not when he’s washed up and over the hill, but while he still plays for England. Jermain effing Defoe: As the ads say, it’s a bloody big deal.
It isn’t just him. There’s Mike Bradley, the heart and soul of the U.S. national team, ranked number 10 in the world—tough, talented, skilled, famous for taking 13 staples in his head to close a gash without missing a second on the field. There’s Canadian Dwayne De Rosario, too, an incredible competitor who once scored a hat trick for TFC through sheer determination in a game they had to win. And don’t forget Júlio César, goalkeeper for the Brazilian national team. That’s right: Brazil, the best soccer nation in the world. Their national team goalkeeper. Not only is César playing for us, but he’s showing incredible joy when we win.
There is so much more to TFC’s make-over than these men—I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Steven Caldwell, the tenacious Scot and captain—but César’s joy is the reason TFC fans, like me, are back in droves this season. Toronto FC is fun again.
READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH JERMAINE EFFING DAFOE!
Last September, I didn’t feel the same. I had publicly returned my TFC season tickets, frustrated by the latest management changes. I posted a public letter to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment on my Facebook page. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of people came up to me and said that I spoke for them, too.
It wasn’t easy for me to break up with TFC. I’ve loved soccer since I first touched a ball in England as a boy. I supported my local team, Ipswich Town, since my uncle first took me to a game in the 1970s. Then I fell in love again, this time with TFC, at their debut game on April 22, 2007 at BMO Field. It was incredible. The noise, the chants, the energy—it was like no other sporting event I’d been to, and I’d been to many. We broke out into “O Canada” ourselves, unprompted by a professional singer. The fans in my section stamped their feet so much that the bolts holding the stadium together fell out. The vendors ran out of beer and had to double their stock for the second game. I’m told that it sold out again, and had to be doubled once more. The atmosphere was extraordinary, and Major League Soccer modelled subsequent expansion teams on our success.
Yet by the summer of 2012, crowds were waning, the atmosphere was rarely special, and the magic seemed to have gone. What went wrong? Why were dedicated supporters like me ready to give up on the team? To answer that, you have to understand the psyche of the soccer supporter, because many in the media have blamed TFC’s problems on losing—and they are wrong.
Being a supporter means showing up, even when both the weather and the team are lousy. It means endlessly discussing the latest developments at the pub and the coffee shop, or in online forums. It means investing in season tickets and buying the kit. And, for supporters of most clubs, it also means losing.
That’s right, losing. If you aren’t Manchester United, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich, you are not destined to win the most important leagues and cups. Still, for a loyal supporter of a less-than-dominant team, there will be moments of triumph and ecstasy: a win against an archrival; a hard-fought draw against a superior opponent; a late goal to snatch a victory or avoid a defeat. With confidence in management, fans know that a new player, a new signing, a new manager, even a new owner, will transform the team. All of these things can give hope. And it’s hope that fuels the soccer supporter, even of a losing team.
Commentators often describe TFC’s existence as “seven years of futility.” To a true supporter, that’s nonsense. Yes, there were defeats, but there’ve been great moments, too. Think about Danny Dichio scoring the first goal in TFC’s history; to this day, his name is sung in the 24th minute of each game. Recall the “Miracle in Montreal” in 2009, when De Rosario scored a hat trick to secure the Canadian championship; and the 2010 2-1 victory over Mexico City’s Cruz Azul. Then there was the fabulous 2012 run to the Champions League semi-finals when we beat L.A. Galaxy, the first leg played in front of over 50,000 fans at the Rogers Centre.
In fact, for its first three years, TFC built steadily, but a dispiriting loss to N.Y. Red Bulls in the last game of 2009 left the club out of the playoffs, and left interim coach Chris Cummins without a job. He was replaced by Preki (Predrag Radosavljević), a no-nonsense and experienced coach, but that’s when the revolving door started to spin. When Preki’s strict discipline and trades of popular, talented players didn’t work, he was gone, along with the general manager, Mo Johnson. Then came the Dutchman Aaron Winter, and after him Paul Mariner, who was also fired a few months later. From Cummins to Mariner, there were five coaches in four years and almost 100 players on the field at one time or another.
By the end of the 2012 season, TFC was a mishmash of styles, players, coaches, and management. The results on the pitch were painful. Losing wasn’t the problem. Rather, it was how the team lost—allowing goals in the last few minutes of games, constantly. Hope was gone. Management even had to bring in a professional singer to perform the national anthem. The fans who still showed up arrived late and left early.
HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW BMO?
An annotated insider’s guide to Toronto FC’s home field.
The beginning of 2013 hinted at a revival. A new president, Kevin Payne, with a history of winning in MLS, and a new coach, Ryan Nelsen, straight from playing in the English premiership, promised a new approach. They would rebuild with young South Americans who could grow with the team. Under Nelsen, the team began to show effort and organization, if not always wins. Payne brought in Matías Laba, an excellent defensive midfielder, and later Maximiliano Urruti, a young striker. There was hope and belief again, at least among the hardcore supporters. Laba was excellent, and once Caldwell arrived, our defence stopped giving up the late goals that had plagued the team. Young Canadian Johnathan Osorio helped, and TFC showed some results. Early in the season, TFC scored late in the game to tie L.A.; later in the season, the team scored four minutes into extra time to defeat our bitter rivals Columbus, in the rain. We seemed to be on the right track.
But then the revolving door spun, again. MLSE had appointed a new president, Tim Leiweke, who made bold statements about bringing in international stars. Gone was Payne’s careful and patient approach, and Payne as well, fired after a few months in the job. Gone too was Urruti, traded after playing all of 37 minutes. At the time, it seemed crazy. It was the fifth major transition in five years, and for a team desperately in need of stability, change seemed like exactly the wrong approach. That’s when I sent my tickets back. I’d had it.
But those of us who were angry under-estimated both Leiweike’s vision and his ability to make it happen. By delivering on his bold promises—it was him who recruited Defoe and the other stars—Leiweike restored hope. Just weeks into the new season, the stars and the lesser-known players have delivered on the field. Defoe scored three times in the first two games, both wins. But the most important victory was two-nil, at Columbus on April 5, when Defoe was hurt. It was a road win in a place TFC almost never wins, with Bradley leading the play and a host of other players stepping up.
For me—and for those hundreds of other TFC fans who said I spoke for them—it’s not just about the winning and it’s not just about the stars. It’s about seeing the entire team working hard and showing passion on the pitch. Soccer at BMO Field is fun again. The magic is back. And so am I.
FIVE ESSENTIAL TFC FACTS
1. The team values CanCon.
The roster boasts plenty of Canadian talent, including the recently returned Dwayne De Rosario and starting defender Doneil Henry. The latter, a Brampton-born 21-year old, was the first-ever player trained in the TFC Academy—the club’s official development institution—to sign with the team.
2. TFC has been known to borrow.
Along with marquee signings Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, and Gilberto (Gilberto Oliveira Souza Júnior), TFC also picked up Júlio César on loan from British club Queens Park Rangers. Brazil’s starting goalkeeper, César accepted the deal to stay in shape for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
3. Ohio is the enemy.
TFC’s main rivalry started with a squabble over the trillium. The official flower of Ontario and official wildflower of Ohio, it inspired the Trillium Cup, which is played in an annual two-game series between TFC and the Columbus Crew. TFC hosts its home leg on May 31.
4. The British are coming.
On July 23, TFC hosts English Premier League club—and Defoe’s previous side—Tottenham Hotspur for a mid-season friendly match.
5. Global domination will be theirs.
TFC has won the non-league Amway Canadian Championship four out of the past six seasons, earning the right to face clubs from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Central and South America in the annual CONCACAF Champion’s League.—Scott Tavener