I’m writing this in Toronto, only a few blocks from a muscled up BMO Field where four months ago I stood in the cold and watched as Seattle Sounders keeper Stefan Frei miraculously palmed out Jozy Altidore’s parabolic header to keep the score level at nil-nil.
It was the only moment anyone will remember from a wretched MLS Cup final in which the winning team failed to earn a single shot on goal.
I was also there at a smaller, plastic-pitched BMO Field on a chilly April afternoon nearly 10 years ago. That day Toronto FC fell to the Kansas City Wizards courtesy of Eddie Johnson’s goal in the 81st minute. After the match, Johnson was gracious, if a little naive. “Toronto’s going to win a lot of games here,” he said.
Of course, he couldn’t have heard Ron Howard’s narrator voice warn the audience, “They wouldn’t.”
In fact, if you to graph the club’s progress since that opening loss in 2007 to Toronto FC’s brush with glory last season, it would resemble less of a steady upward curve than a hockey stick. And while the club has done many things right behind the scenes since the arrival of GM Tim Bezbatchenko, few would argue that if the stick heel had a label, it would read “Sebastian Giovinco.”
This may be part of the reason why Toronto FC seems to have had a little trouble finding things to fill in their new ‘Wall of Honour.’ They’ve included, for instance, the 1976 NASL Soccer Bowl winners Metros-Croatia, despite the fact the teams have no connection whatsoever beyond existing in the same city and playing the same sport.
That little bit of historical appropriation may be part of TFC president Bill Manning’s master plan to build on the club’s recent success and try to monopolize football in Toronto. Manning sounded more than a little goonish for instance when he spoke to the Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson about the possibility of a Canadian Premier League club setting up shop in TFC’s backyard: “We’ll still be supportive as long as you’re not competing with us.”
It’s all a bit heavy handed for a team that only a year ago was still in groveling mode, having had almost no MLS postseason history to speak of. Despite a memorable 2016, the club hasn’t quite earned the right yet to completely shed their humility. After all, there is nothing more MLS than a club on the verge of glory on year to be inexplicably terrible the next.
That’s why 2017 is the year when Toronto FC fans find out what their soccer club is made of. Some of the off-season moves seem intriguing, if not exactly risk free, like the addition of former Barca player Victor Vazquez from Cruz Azul. But, MLS being a league in which the entire table can invert, revert and invert again in the space of a couple of months, we probably won’t know Toronto’s fate until mid-September.
This last point unfortunately raises an important practical question, both for me and for you, as I contemplate covering Toronto FC for Paste Soccer this year: how do you write about a league where many of the regular season games hardly seem to matter? I tried once for the Guardian US a couple of years ago, writing one of those ‘5 things we learned’ columns each and every week, and I quickly found out it was an exercise in futility. Like Seinfeld, one of the cardinal rules of MLS is there is no learning, no lessons, no moral of the story. MLS is a TV show where nothing happens.
To get around it, I’ve found most soccer beat writers here take the amnesiatic approach, writing each week as if they’re seeing the team anew but with the same stern (and pointless) warnings over the need for teams to improve their ‘form’. I don’t want to subject you to that. So, I’m going to try something different this year. What it will be, exactly, I don’t know yet. We’ll find out together.