How Soccer Explains Canada

I’m currently living in what is becoming known as the city where sports go to die. Toronto has some of the least successful franchises in North America. Leafs: no playoffs since 2004, Raptors: no playoffs since 2008, Blue Jays: no playoffs since 1993, Argos: only 2 times since 2008, and then Toronto FC: never, not once, never.

This is a little painful for me. I want to cheer for TFC, I have cheered for TFC. I can’t cheer for any other sports team in this city because I grew up elsewhere in Canada, where we’re all taught to hate Toronto teams on principle. But TFC is an exception to that rule because I moved to Toronto before they were founded, so I was never trained to cheer against them. Unfortunately, they are losing me fast. Partly because of how bad they are, but also due to the arrival of another Canadian Major League Soccer (MLS) team I have been trained to cheer for: the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Soccer has a fragile hold on the country at most times, we are a nation of hockey fans. But the future of Canadian soccer is clearly headed to the West Coast. My prediction is that Vancouver will win the MLS Cup before Toronto, if Toronto ever manages to (which doesn’t seem likely at this rate). I base this on a number of factors that will tilt the balance of soccer inevitably in Vancouver’s favour. For this discussion I’m going to cut Montreal right out because while they are clearly better than Toronto for now, that isn’t saying much, don’t worry Montreal Impact you’ll get your turn.

The first factor I’ll look at is history. The Vancouver Whitecaps are not as new as one would think. They are in their current incarnation a second year MLS team, but the history and following of the Whitecaps goes back to the ’70s in the old NASL. There they were a successful team and even beyond the collapse of NASL they continued playing in whatever top flight league they could enter. This team may just be sprouting in MLS, but it has very deep local roots – something that the 6 year old TFC team cannot claim, yet. Sure there are the immigrant communities that follow soccer out here, but many of them are still attached to the old country teams, not a new team in a new land.

Another factor working for Vancouver is the importance of soccer in the local sporting system. Vancouver barely gets snow worth mentioning, and much of Southwest BC plays soccer through the winter. That is not possible in snowbound Toronto. Here, soccer is the sport that parents fill the empty spots in the hockey calendar with; in Vancouver, the soccer players may take the summer off to play baseball, but soccer dominates. It is a the key sport in a rapidly growing region of Canada. Due to the territoriality of MLS, this makes the Whitecaps Academy a much stronger contender than TFC Academy over the long run.

They win on fan support, future prospects and now the final factor: ability to sign players. Toronto is a fair city, and I’d say a fair bit better than many American cities, but its competing against Vancouver to sign talent. Following the transfers and signings in MLS this season shows a trend, and it isn’t a good one for Toronto. Vancouver is able to attract global players in a way that Toronto is not. Yes, Toronto has Frings (but how much longer can that last), and Koevermans, but who did we get mid season? Eric Hassli, a Vancouver surplus (apologies to Hassli, I actually really like his play and wish that he had some help out here but we truly are hopeless). Vancouver managed to keep drawing in and signing players and efficiently use their Designated Player spots.

Perhaps this points to another Vancouver advantage: passion to win. Toronto is now so accustomed to losing, we’re thrilled with mediocrity. I don’t think minority owner and NBA all-star Steve Nash is ever going to walk into a Whitecaps meeting and say, “Congratulations on making our business targets for the year. Too bad we didn’t make the playoffs.” Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment has so alienated many of the sports locals here that we’re now convinced that it is just bottom line that matters. Yet we stupidly fill the seats anyway.

I think we’re dreaming for the Seattle Sounders option of voting on the GM’s job. In the meantime, Vancouver can dream of that MLS Cup. It certainly looks a lot closer from out there.

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