So, it was a tough season for Toronto FC fans. No real news or argument there.
And it wrapped up with an MLS Cup final between TFC’s two most widely and colourfully disliked opponents, the Columbus Crew and New York Energy Drink.
(Note: It shall be Onward! policy – as it was in my Globe and Sportsnet days – not to use nicknames that are pure product placement. It shall also be policy never to quote the full name of that idiotically monikered MLS club from Salt Lake City.)
But with a deadline, a sense of duty, and the happy thought that MLS Cup finals tend to be pretty darn decent soccer games, I nosed the Honda product down to Shoeless Joe’s to take in the festivities with a small yet vocal band of Red Patchers.
With “Who to cheer for?” an obvious non-starter, attention shifted to “What?” It was decided that the fourth official would be loudly, pounding cheered and chanted every time he appeared or actually did anything. Yellow cards were also a cheering point, as eventually were clumps of turf flying up from the playing field, and unnecessarily conceded corner kicks.
But with a clean game, excellent turf, alert defenders and TV coverage that routinely missed substitutions, there just didn’t end up being a whole lot to cheer for. … And it ended up being a fine and enjoyable soccer match.
So I said my goodbyes, drove off into the sunset – and lost my job before I ever had a chance to write about it.
I knew something had changed. Not the job, but my perception of the odd and oft-times limiting and difficult world of Major League Soccer.
2008 – year II of TFC – found me grumbling … a lot. I’m both a fan and advocate of salary caps, for example, and MLS actually has one. But the darn thing is pulled down so far, no one can see out from under it! With an entire roster to feed and only $2.5-million to spread around, there are always going to be holes on the roster. TFC had gaping ones – up front AND at the back – and it got hard not to notice that all … the … blessed … time.
But that lovely little Crew-Popcan final got me wondering – is anyone in Columbus any less happy about the championship?
And then the blinding truth dawned – I’ve been watching and grumbling about this league from the perspective of a passionate fan whose team finished dead last in the division two years on the trot.
(Obvious, I know. But obvious ain’t always obvious when it’s avalanching you game after game after game.)
When you win, the bad reffing and tight roster rules and total lack of financial freedom didn’t actually get you. When you’re New York, and you win your way to the final despite a reeling, wonky, seasick-inducing record of 10-11-9, you can forgive an awful lot of institutional side-static.
But down here in the basement?
- Hey, we started an academy! Guess what? We can only sign one player from it – per year!
- Hey, we sold Maurice Edu to Glasgow Rangers for 5-million smirking George Washingtons! Guess what? We can only spend $500,000 of that on players!
- Hey, our GM is stockpiling young talent, like any good bad team on the rise! Guess what? MLS (see point above) doesn’t really reward that!
- Hey, the reffing is horrible! Guess what? It got worse and worse as the season wore on!
Okay, there was a flip side:
- Hey, we got young striker Chad Barrett from Chicago in exchange for the rights to a star player we never owned, signed or drafted!
All of these – and many others – remain oddly and uncomfortably true. For all the tens of millions pouring into league coffers through expansion, the salary cap cannot be increased until the next round of collective bargaining with the players, slated for a year from now.
What I’m open to – and fair thank-yous to both Columbus and New York for a fine afternoon’s sport – is that none of this muck would have sat so heavily on the north-of-Buffalo soul if the Torontos had actually made the playoffs.
The seven steps of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle are: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance. For TFC fans, the shock came when we got the team in the first place. There was any amount of denial in year one, followed by anger in year two.
At this rate, either we make the playoffs and cheer up – or we finally get around to accepting our fate … along about 2013.
I’m guessing – hoping? – things get better from here.