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Deep in the shadows

Earlier this week, seeking solace from a soccer story that just didn’t want to be written, I took a late evening run down to one of my favourite little secret corners of my home and native town, Toronto.

Cherry Beach didn’t start life as a beach. When the glaciers cleared out of here, that particular section of east-Toronto lakefront was a soggy, marshy bog. Its oozing mud and mosquitoes probably did as much to repel American forces back in the early days than pretty much anything that happened at Historic Fort York (an early precursor to BMO Field, if you’re not hip to the local history.)
The entire area was land-filled, hosted heavy industry, and then got handed right back to nature. Now, it’s a sleepy little cove, filled with gulls and cormorants and herons, still placed inconventiently enough that most local shore-strollers end up elsewhere.

This makes is a wonderful spot for seclusion, peace and quiet. I even had a canoe stashed down here before I had to abandon the old life. Ah, well. Onward!

I may be landlocked these days, but Cherry Beach is still where I go to figure out what happens next. And that’s what I was fixin’ to do the other night when my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to go see what those floodlights were all about.

Of course, I knew they’d build a new soccer facility down there. I just didn’t remember at that exact moment. What was once been one of the most industrially poisoned plots of real estate anywhere in Canada has now been carpeted in artificial turf, bathed in stadium lights, and was hosting two lively youth soccer matches on twin, gleaming green soccer carpets.

Present tense. It looks wonderful.

On the near field, two boys teams – late teens – are locked in an intriguingly fast-paced struggle. I’ll let them stay anonymous. It doesn’t actually matter.

One club is significantly better than the other. A dominant midfield is serving up a tasty array of through balls – well-struck in the air, cunningly calculated on the ground – to a nifty little attacking mid who seems able to lock onto anything with his first touch.

“Too small,” I catch myself thinking.

And there’s the separation. At what point does the game become the business? Out of nowhere, I get the unexpected joy of watching a superb young athlete do some really clever work, and the first thing out of my brain is he isn’t big enough to make it in the pros?


The parents are tense, too. Hushed mutterings about the other team grabbing shirts (they aren’t) and what exactly is offside, anyway? The cadence is so familiar. Time was, I went about as deep as one can go into grassroots box lacrosse, and stayed there for years. The whispers are identical. Quick biting judgments, frustration over who’s supposed to mark whom, then loud, edgy outbursts for – and against – their own kids.

There’s more going on here than the game on the field. But what exactly are the expectations? Youth soccer’s not new here. But this Canadian soccer renaissance is. This is Toronto FC territory now. There’s a pro team. They have a youth academy. There is a way forward now.

I’m getting ahead of myself. This is time to observe, not conclude.

Running between the two fields is a brick passageway, housing player benches, lighting towers and a stunning view of downtown Toronto. How did this get here? I’ve lived here half a century, and this wasn’t here before – exactly the same feeling I still get when I gaze at the same skyline from the roof of BMO Field. It’s almost like the skyline is only there to drive home the point that all this gleaming green new modern soccer is really, actually, impossibly happening in Toronto.

See, this was a soccer town – occasionally – but it was patchy dirt or concrete plastic, in vast cold stadiums that would be laughed out of self-respecting footie towns the world over. Yeah, we got our one pro first-division championship back in ’76, but what have you done for me lately?

First, what used to be left field in dreadful old Exhibition Stadium blossomed into cozy, edgy, intimate BMO Field. Now, a dark deserted corner of the port lands hears the whispers of tense, stressed soccer moms as a good team whacks a poor one on fake grass under fake light, late on a Lake Ontario evening when the cormorants must be wishing that someone would just turn off those darned arc lamps.

I edge out into the darkness, and walk a quarter mile down a little-used railroad spur. You can tell rail traffic is light, because the grass is really taking hold between the ties. You can tell it’s not abandoned, because nature still hasn’t completely taken over. It’s all mud, dust and darkness down on Unwin Avenue, just like any other night ever since Toronto got here.

A cheer from the field. Must have been good.

I’ve been feeling, early in my third Major League Soccer season, that I’m seeing the game more clearly than ever. Formation, positioning, strategy, tactics – I just feel I’m getting it at a different level now. The less isolated my city has become from the main plotlines of the global game, the deeper the bonds become. Makes perfect sense, but it’s nice to see it in action.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that kid’s not too small. He was a blast to watch.

Heading home across metal-mesh drawbridges, past the back end of a sleeping lake freighter, I understand a day will have to come when I can watch the game un-tactically again. I have no blessed clue when – or how – that will ever be.