Bill Spiers Posted March 14, 2006 Share Posted March 14, 2006 Not sure if this has been posted already. Apologies if it has. (And Bob McCowan - a soccer pundit???) From OntarioSoccerWeb and Turf Monster: http://www.turfmonster.ca/content/?CatId=87&ContentId=4357 MLS in Toronto: Can it work? Varsity Stadium was home to some of Toronto's most memorable soccer matches and the builders of a new stadium at Exhibition Place hope to create the same magic of the now demolished downtown stadium. Some of the most influential figures in the history of professional soccer in Toronto weigh in on whether the latest attempt to sell the sport in the city will succeed. The newest member of Toronto's pro sports family has been born but will Toronto's highly fickle soccer fans be there in 18 months to watch it take its first steps. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber officially welcomed Toronto as the league's 13th franchise during the half-time show of MLS Cup on U.S. Network ABC, but many still wonder if his kind words and new $72-million soccer specific stadium will be enough to make soccer work for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment? Those who have coached and managed the city's teams and leagues of the past feel Major League Soccer can succeed in Toronto but warn the owners of the Leafs and Raptors to learn from their mistakes and not repeat past failures. Near the shores of Lake Ontario at Exhibition Place, plans are afoot for a 22,000 seat soccer specific stadium which its builders hope will provide a new home for the game since the demolition of Varsity Stadium in 2002. Construction on the facility which will use close to $45-million in public money is expected to begin in late January and once completed it will be home to games of the FIFA World Youth Championships in July 2007 and Torontoâ€™s latest big league soccer team. 'We look at the city of Toronto and its passion for soccer and our research says professional soccer will work,' said Toronto Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie. Soccer remains the most popular participatory sport in Canada with 825,323 registered players and the passage of major international tournaments like the World Cup or European Cup usually results in massive street parties and victory celebrations. But will Toronto's soccer public buy into a top flight domestic league when so many others have ended in failure? As Clive Toye sits in the New York office of his sports promotion company SportsWorks, LLC, he works on a copy of his biography and wonders if Major League Soccer can finally make a break through with Toronto soccer fans. Also an adviser to FIFA vice president Jack Warner, Toye is the man who rescued the North American Soccer League from total collapse in 1969 but failed at his desperate revival attempts a second time in 1984 when the sickly and debt riddled NASL eventually folded. He was president of the Toronto Blizzard for five seasons, and is also credited by many as the author of the North American soccer boom. In 1975 as president of the New York Cosmos he coaxed Brazilian legend Pele out of retirement for a then record pro sports contract of $4.5-million, and built a team of world superstars that played in front of sell out crowds wherever they travelled . 'Despite the career anti-soccer brigade, I believe an MLS team can succeed in Toronto,' Toye said. 'But they [MLSE] will need to have people in the club who are plainly committed to the game itself and not just taking a job. They will need to be everywhere: every youth tournament, awards dinner, prize giving and social club, cup final and season opener Being as much a part of the Ontario soccer scene as it is possible to be. And having done all that do it again.' The many skeptics of professional soccer can point to a graveyard of the deceased leagues and teams including Toye's Blizzard, their fore-runner the Toronto Metros-Croatia, and before them the Falcons and Toronto City as reasons to believe any future team in the city is destined to fail. In 1983 The Toronto Nationals became the shortest living pro team in Toronto history lasting just three home games before owners pulled the plug after just two months in operation. The ill-fated Canadian Professional Soccer League played a shortly season and vanished after just one year of operation. Radio host Bob McCowan of TheFan 590 is a long time soccer pundit and has no faith in those who will soon be peddling the latest brand name of professional soccer. 'If red ink becomes visible, MLSE will close up its soccer shop faster than you can say: teachers pension fund, shrug its collective shoulders and return to the hockey machine that has powered MLSE's profits to date,' McCowan recently wrote in a recent on-line column. Lawyer Bruce Thomas is now the Toronto site committee chair for the 2007 FIFA World Youth Championships but remembers how hard a sell soccer was when he as president of the Metros Croatia. The team won the NASL's 1976 Soccer Bowl and even had Portuguese legend Eusebio on the team but failed to attract fans. 'We were funded by the province of Ontario and the City of Toronto and had support from a wide cross section of the corporate community but it was still a struggle,' Thomas said. Thomas stressed in order to be a success Major League Soccer will need to create rivalries as pro football has done in the NFL and CFL - warning without this dynamic there will be little interest. As the debate heats up over Major League Soccer in Toronto - the owner of Toronto's current professional team - the Toronto Lynx of the United Soccer Leagues, First Division - adds up the losses from another season. Bruno Hartrell, a self confessed bean counter, is an accountant by trade and estimates he has lost over $5-million since he took over full ownership of the Lynx in 2000. He would be one of the first to agree with McCown that pro soccer is a definite money pit. The Lynx play out their existence going virtually unnoticed at tiny 3,000 seat Centennial Stadium in Etobicoke, Ont. attracting paltry crowds of 2,000. Hartrell also operates the Lady Lynx of the women's W-League and teams in the Super Y-League North American youth development circuit but feels betrayed by the Canadian Soccer Association's endorsement of Major League Soccer. 'They [The CSA] have stolen our future,' Hartrell muses. 'The CSA has delivered a $72-million stadium to MLSE for a $8-million commitment to stadium construction.' Hartrell fought long and hard with CSA officials to become a tennant in the new stadium and after one more season says he will go into competition with MLSE at Exhibition Place. 'We are the flea and they [MLSE] are the elephant, we just hope there is a potential for a working relationship,' he said. Despite the rosy predictions about Major League Soccer by MLSE, Hartrell says pro soccer's top league is in dire straits, pointing to over $450-million in losses since the league first opened its doors ten years ago. 'They are bleeding money,' Hartrell says. 'Last year each team had to pay the league $2.5-million just to cover the losses.' As far as Major League Soccer's single entity ownership structure where the league owns players contracts instead of individual teams - Hartrell wonders aloud if MLSE will push for changes to this concept. He pauses and then notes that the two key backers of the league, Texas oilman Lamar Hunt and movie theatre mogul Philip Anschutz AEG have decided to limit their future in the league selling the New York-New Jersey Metro Stars recently and attempting to unload their flagship DC United club. Hunt put his flagship team the Kanas City Wizards up for sale last spring and Anschutz unloaded DC United for $20-million to a group of Washington area investors in July. As the first commissioner of the Canadian Soccer League in 1987, Dale Barnes admits his pockets weren't as deep as AEG but he once put up his own personal money to keep the CSL afloat in the early days. Barnes also gave up a lifetime contract with TSN in exchange for a badly needed television deal and admits it may have been the biggest mistake of his entire career. Barnes says travel expenses and a lack of support from the Canadian Soccer Association are what really killed the league. He cautioned MLSE to keep its distance from the CSA and warned to close a relationship could destine the franchise to failure. 'They [MLSE] need to know what worked and what didn't work but nobody ever seems to ask,' he said. 'They are going to have to run it like a pro outfit, not get conned by the CSA and not get conned by ethnic groups saying we won't come unless you have our players playing,' Barnes said. 'Do you know that in all these years the CSA has been trying to get a stadium built and attract a team they never once picked up the phone and asked me what were the problems in running the Canadian Soccer League.' Canadian soccer historian Colin Jose points out that professional soccer in Toronto has been chalked full of controversy since the great grand parents of today's MLS team took their first steps back in 1913. Jose the historian for The Soccer Hall of Fame in Vaughan, Ont., says the new teams were simply known as 'Toronto' and Queen City. The teams played in the Interprovincial Professional Football Association and were members of the Dominion of Canada Football Association (DCFA). 'At the time professional sports were frowned up and as a result the newly formed league found itself in conflict with the Canadian Amateur Athletic Union which it was a member,' Jose said. Although today's soccer fans may come from different parts of the world than they did at the turn of the last century - they are just as passionate about the game says Portuguese soccer fan and broadcaster Alex Franco. Franco once played street soccer with Eusebio while growing up as a boy in his native Maputo, Angola. Both a fan and ambassador for the game, he now hosts a weekly television show on Portuguese soccer on digital cable channel FPTV as well as on CIRV radio. He is well connected to the College Street soccer scene and recalls a moment in 2004 when Portuguese fans spilled into the streets and stopped traffic for several city blocks in celebration of their country's European Cup semi-final win over Holland. 'I have no dobut MLSE will bring credibility back to pro soccer,' said Franco. 'The way the Italians and Portuguese love their hockey in Toronto - these people love and adore soccer even more. This is the way whoever starts running a new team has to thank because it will be these people who will come and fill up the stands,' Franco said. One of Major League Soccer's most famous players - Dwayne DeRosario of Canada's World Cup team grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough but after one season with the Lynx had to leave the country to find a job. The 2005 Major League Soccer MVP candidate led the league with 13 assists this season and scored the MLS goal of the year, a scorching free kick against the LA Galaxy. DeRosario not only believes a team will work in Toronto but says it will help move Canada forward. 'I am definitely convinced a team in Toronto will be a success,' DeRosario said. 'I would take it one step further and say if we get a facility built and an MLS team - Canada will make the next World Cup. I know its a big statement but I think a team in Toronto will make this happen.' But for every great player that has developed his soccer skills on a dusty and sun baked field at G. Ross Lord Park or at Eglinton Flats - there are many more who never had the chance. Mississauga resident Hector Marinaro, Sr. once played for Buenos Aires famed Racing Club before coming to Canada to play in the inaugural season of the Eastern Canadian Professional Soccer League with Montreal Cantalia in 1961. Years later as a coach, he once convinced former Maple Leaf Peter Zezel against a pursuit in professional soccer when he coached the former NHLer and his son with semi-professional Toronto Italia. 'I think I gave him the right advice,' Marinaro says. Marinaro saw no advantages for Zezel going after a career in pro soccer. His own son - Hector Marinaro, Jr., went on to become the greatest goal scorer in the history of the Major Indoor Soccer League but is virtually unknown to Toronto sports fans. The senior Marinaro says the game has gone downhill ever since the collapse of the ECPSL in 1966 and that is something former MLSE owner Steve Stavro agrees with. Stavro built a successful chain of grocery stores - Knob Hill Farms - and was a majority owner of MLSE before he sold his shares to the Ontario Teachers Pension fund and BellGlobe media in 2003. But before his involvement in the NHL, he was owner of the ECPSL flagship team - Toronto City - which featured English legends Sir Stanley Mathews, Tommy Younger, Johnny Hayes, Ireland's Danny Blanchflower and Scotland's Jackie Mudie. ECPSL president Harold Ballard said that he felt 'over the next five years soccer would become the major summer sport in Canada.' 'It really was a classic time for soccer in Toronto - people loved it because they saw the worlds best players and we had great crowds,' Stavro said from his home in Toronto. The stars eventually returned overseas and the crowds gradually declined for ECPSL which eventually folded in 1966. Today Stavro says he is still a fan of soccer and mentions a recent game between Chelsea and Liverpool which he rather enjoyed. Stavro has no stake in the new team but concludes that Major League Soccer can make a go of it in Toronto. 'It [an MLS team] won't make money overnight but there is interest in the game,' he said. 'There are a lot of young people from many different countries in the city today and they all have an appreciation for the game. If it is priced right, marketed properly - with all the fans in Toronto I think a team deserves another shot.' Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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