Graham Ruthven looks ahead to the biggest game in US soccer and the significance a win will hold for either side
Proper football stadiums are easier to come by in MLS than they once were.
‘Soccer-specific stadiums,’ they’re called, distinguishing them from the cavernous NFL venues or ill-angled ballparks some teams used to call home in the early days of the league. There are now 13 such stadiums in MLS, but few are quite like BMO Field.
It should be noted that as a multi-use stadium, used for rugby and the occasional gridiron football game, the Toronto venue isn't technically listed as a so-called soccer-specific stadium. But try making the point the recently expanded and renovated BMO Field isn’t built for football when the MLS Cup final rolls into town this weekend. Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders are two clubs, and two fan bases, that will make the most of that.
Toronto’s supporters certainly showcased themselves in the whirlwind 5-2 win over Montreal Impact to make it to the MLS Cup final. The sold out crowd was a driving, if somewhat intangible, factor in Gregg Vanney’s side coming from behind to make it past their Canadian rivals, almost sucking the ball into goal at times.
Of course, as a club that regularly packs out the 67,000-capacity CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Sounders won’t be short of travelling support, contributing to what will be a frenzied atmosphere in close to freezing conditions. Two big clubs boasting two big fanbases will fight it out for the biggest prize in North American football.
BMO Field in 2015 during Manchester City's preseason game against Toronto FC. Image: Vaughn Ridley EMPICS Sport
It could be said that both Toronto and Seattle find themselves in a relatively similar place before Saturday’s game. For so long, they have been maligned as two of MLS’s most tediously tragic teams, struggling to match off the field stature with on the field success, now they are finally realising their potential. The prize that dangles in front of both sides is the same - fulfillment.
After a season which lacked a defining narrative, there are now plenty plots and storylines to unpick ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup final. Seattle’s astonishing late season streak, winning 12 from 19 games since the sacking of Sigi Schmid in July, has raised debate over the validity of the regular season, with the Pacific North-westerners exploiting MLS’s playoff format. Discussion over Toronto has focused on their star players, and how they are finally delivering.
This weekend’s match at BMO Field could have a rather profound bearing on the North American soccerscape. Toronto and Seattle have the resources to use an MLS Cup win to install themselves as established challengers, much in the same way the LA Galaxy did over the Bruce Arena years. This Saturday could prove to be a catalyst for either club. There’s a lot more than just a shimmering piece of silverware up for grabs.
MLS, just like any other North American sporting league, talks frequently about marketplaces and audience. In that regard, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders have always been considered clubs ripe for mainstream growth. Supporters of the latter would claim they are closer to achieving that, but for all their sold out crowds and impressive shirt sales, the Sounders have underachieved, having never before made it to an MLS Cup final.
Toronto, however, is a much more fickle market when it comes to the support of its football team. BMO Field hasn’t always been the red-hot cauldron it was in the Eastern Conference final win over Montreal last week, but the city has embraced their team’s playoff run this season. 7,000 additional seats have been installed for the MLS Cup final, with the club even exploring the possibility of adding more.
The hope in Canada is that Saturday’s game will be to Toronto what the 1994 World Cup was to the USA, taking football to the masses in a city that doesn’t always embrace its sports teams.
However, winning teams with big names and big results naturally find it easier to attract fans, and there are certainly plenty of fans waiting to be found in Toronto. A lucrative market doesn’t always result in a successful club (see Chicago Fire), but Toronto are closer than ever to finally joining up the dots.
Over 2,000 miles separate the two cities, but there will be a lot to link Toronto and Seattle this weekend. Momentum has carried both teams all the way to the MLS Cup final, but they have much more than just form behind them. For both of them, Saturday could prove to be something of a watershed.