Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC have been busy the last few weeks preparing for their third season, kicking off this Saturday at 8:30 p.m. away against the Kansas City Wizards (live on GolTV and The Fan 590). As in years past, Canada’s only major professional soccer club is playing its first two games away from home to avoid any last gasp of winter weather before returning to the well-publicized mayhem of BMO Field on April 4. That may explain the relatively quiet media build-up to kick-off: the club is mostly noticed in Toronto for the spectacle of twenty thousand screaming supporters at every home game. That TFC is a professional club competing for top honours in a serious North American league often escapes notice.
It’s not hard to see why: MLS is generally considered bush-league football in comparison to the wealthy and well-supported European leagues. Yet as the Globe and Mail’s Steven Brunt points out, there are signs MLS is offering a solid product in economically challenging times. The league is expanding; it was announced on Wednesday that Vancouver will get a franchise in 2011, joining Philadelphia in 2010 and Seattle this year (the Seattle Sounders have already sold nearly twenty-two thousand season tickets), and there are plans for possible franchises in Miami and Portland. Slowly, more and more die-hard soccer fans are supporting MLS clubs in addition to their preferred roster of European teams such as Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Juventus. While the quality of play may never match that of Europe leagues, vigourous fan support in soccer-specific stadiums will only help to boost the league’s profile in the long-term while guaranteeing modest but reliable returns for investors in the short.
Meanwhile, Toronto soccer fans are hoping when media hype over “soccer mania” dies down and TFC achieves more and more on the pitch, the club might finally generate regular coverage in print and broadcast media alongside the big boys in baseball, basketball, and hockey. As Toronto FC starts the season in a relatively healthy league with the strongest squad since its inception, with more and more of Toronto’s European soccer fans joining the season ticket waiting list (TFC owners MLSE are already considering expanding BMO Field), be prepared this summer to see a lot more soccer in your local news.