First, an apology with not getting this out sooner; I have a great final week lined up to cap off A More Splendid Life's series on the history of soccer in Toronto. Today focuses on the historic Canadian Championship final game between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, and as readers of this series will know, it was a long time in the making.
It can be said without a hint of hyperbole that last night was probably the most important derby match in Toronto's soccer history. As fans of NHL hockey are already aware, Montreal v. Toronto is a big ticket event, and while last night lacked the bite of the Leafs Habs rivalry, it had all the hallmarks of a classic cup final. Most of impressive of all were the 20 000 passionate, partisan supporters for an all-Canadian club match. Historically, Toronto could only generate these numbers if Juventus, Ajax or Real Madrid topped the bill.
The Voyaguers Cup, now the Canadian Championship, has been awarded since 2002 to the club which finished higher in the USL standings. Prior to TFC, three Canadian professional clubs were in the running: the Toronto Lynx, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps. The USL never really caught on in Toronto, partly because the team fared so poorly and partly because the USL was viewed as 'bush-league' soccer (a view that was put to bed last night), and when Toronto FC arrived the Lynx quietly relegated themselves to the USL Development league. Now with Toronto FC's popularity, it was decided the trophy should go to the winner of a home-and-away round robin -- hence Montreal was able to advance by drawing Toronto at home.
The Canadian Championship was a complete success. Beyond generating publicity for Canada's other professional clubs, particularly the former USL powerhouse Montreal Impact, it demonstrated to Canadians in general and Torontonians in particular the power of a local soccer derby. Although bitter at last night's loss, there are probably some Toronto FC fans who eagerly anticipate Impact's promotion to the MLS as it will provide Toronto FC's first major Canadian rival.
Followers of this series will now be aware how perilous, how long, and how fraught with financial problems, poor management, and over-ambition the road to last night has been. They will also know Toronto FC's popularity among the cities highly-discerning soccer fans is fragile -- losses like last night's will not be tolerated for much longer. Unless the MLSE takes the club seriously and introduces a grass playing field to rival Montreal's Saputo Stadium, we will not get the players the club's supporters deserve. Stations like Sportsnet and and the Score are providing good coverage of the MLS, but they must not forget that European club matches provide the fuel for TFC's fan interest. We are at too critical a stage in soccer's development in Toronto to make foolish mistakes, yet another reason for the city to start giving a damn about its own rich soccer history, if only to avoid repeating its mistakes.