It’s hard to imagine a place more not Toronto, Ontario than Sandy, Utah, a southern suburb of Salt Lake and home of the Rio Tinto stadium, officially at 1,356 meters elevation, nestled at the foot of the Wasatch mountain range.
Though other divisions can claim longer away day distances—the Russian Premier League comes to mind—it’s the variety in climate, culture, geography that makes MLS unique relative to its European cousins, against which it must constantly be compared. TV unfortunately does much to erase this; it’s something only known to players and those rare lucky media souls on a travel budget.
But it’s visible on the field of play. It can be incredibly lonely for those northern clubs who must open the season in exile throughout the grey month of March; Toronto FC’s first home game isn’t until March 31st. Though it was a familiar line-up, a 3-5-2 with Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow playing wing-back, the rust of the shortened off-season was evident, as was a slight feeling of disjointedness in front of goal, a continuation of the MLS Cup final against Seattle.
Kickoff was nearly preempted by curling on TSN, and the game itself was blacked out in Canada on the digital subscription service MLS Live, as are all Canadian games. The local rights holder TSN doesn’t believe in standalone digital subs, so in order to watch MLS here you must buy a cable TV package which includes a channel named TSN 5, a tall order for a league that doesn’t exactly kill in the ratings department. But capitalism’s gotta do what capitalism’s gotta do. I made other arrangements and managed to catch most of the game in fits and starts in between children side-tackling me on the couch and dinner-related interruptions.
Some impressions—Armando Cooper is a star, but needs to develop a better denouement to his otherwise impressive movement. Jonathan Osorio was a ghost, Jozy Altidore did all the right things but seemed slower than even four months ago, and Sebastian Giovinco is unchanged save for a not-great penalty against the one guy you don’t take not-great penalties against, Nick Rimando.
A lot of the rest—heavy touches, poor corners, needlessly panicked backline clearances—could be otherwise be blamed on the breeze and the sea level. Drew Moor echoed the same post match, telling reporters “I just thought we lacked a little bit of sharpness and it’s a good sign that, although this was a decent result, that we’re not really satisfied with not coming away with three points at the end of the day.”
Indeed, Toronto look as solid as they ever have, and haven’t exactly made a habit of earning points away at Real Salt Lake. But I’m not quite ready to join others calling them the best team in MLS, not yet, not after the New York Red Bulls forced a hyperactive Tata Martino-led Atlanta United into a 3-1 loss and a red card meltdown.
Moreover, despite talk of deserved draws, this could have easily been 1-0 for the home side; allowing Joao Plata alone on goal in the 80th minute will always be an unforgivable sin. There’s a lot that still needs to shake out of this league, and it will take months and months and months.