Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The true Impact of the game

Tonight's 1-1 draw between the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC at BMO Field in the final match of the Nutrilite Canadian Championships means a lot for both clubs. On the surface, the only effect is that Montreal claims the championship and will represent Canada in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League. However, this particular result has deeper meanings for both clubs involved, and also has significance for their leagues and their country.

For Montreal, this is a huge boost. Instead of merely a bright spot, this is rather the only spot with any illumination whatsoever that's been observed in their disappointing season so far. They're 5-8-3 in United Soccer League (USL) play this year and are almost in the league basement, with a record only one point better than the atrocious Minnesota Thunder. That's pretty grim for a team that has plenty of talent, won the USL championship only four years ago and is looking for some good results to fill their sparkling-new stadium.

Enter the Canadian Championships. Cup competitions are always places to watch out for teams expected to do better with the talent on their squad, as it's easier to pull together for a game or two at a time than over a long campaign. Two cases in point come from England this season, where Portsmouth and Tottenham claimed the FA and Carling Cups respectively, but finished 8th and 11th in the Premier League. They may have had to face opposition from a higher league, but it's also tougher for the supposedly-superior team to win, as there's less margin for error: one bad result and you're bounced. As Duane wrote back at the start of these championships, the lack of a single-elimination format reduced this advantage for the USL sides: however, it didn't get rid of it completely. Even the most die-hard USL supporters would likely admit that TFC would in all probability finish ahead of Montreal and Vancouver if they played a whole season against the same opposition.

There's also the matter of media coverage. Much of the mainstream media's coverage of soccer in Canada only sprung up after TFC's formation, and a good deal of the coverage is still Toronto-focused. There are several good reasons for that. First, most of the Canadian media outlets are based in Toronto, so it makes more sense for them to cover a Toronto team than one in Vancouver or Montreal. Second, it's easier to sell MLS soccer than its USL cousin: you can market it as the highest level of the game in North America, and with the designated player rule and the wave of big-name signings that's followed, you can sell it as high-calibre soccer. It's not the Premiership, or La Liga, or Serie A, but it's here, it's pretty good, it's relatively new, it's got some star power and it's got a growing audience and fanbase.

The USL, on the other hand, is much more difficult to sell to readers, viewers, listeners and advertisers, as many of them have no clue what it is. Out here on the West Coast, the Vancouver Whitecaps receive some pretty significant coverage in the local papers and on the local airwaves, but I doubt if many people outside the Vancouver area have heard of them (especially before the launch of this championship). I don't know from first-hand experience, but I'd guess the situation's probably pretty similar in Montreal. It is logical for TFC to get more press, coverage and promotion, and the attention given to them probably helps all soccer in Canada to some degree. Still, you've got to think it sticks in the craw of Joey Saputo, Greg Kerfoot, Bob Lenarduzzi and the other USL owners, executives and fans to see an upstart team like TFC get such extensive coverage while their own storied franchises receive barely a mention on the national stage. This was their chance to strike back, and they did with the strong performances of their teams in this competition. Also, you'd think that the Impact will now probably get some national coverage when they compete in the CONCACAF Champions League.

There's one more key reason why winning this competition was important for Montreal: it allowed them to continue their string of six straight Voyageurs Cup titles as the top team in Canadian soccer. This one in particular provides a lot of respect, as the cup was awarded based on an actual tournament instead of just a couple of regular-season games and the big boys from MLS were involved. They took all the disappointment, abuse and criticism directed at their club and their league, and channeled it into a string of solid on-pitch performances. The last one came right in the notably hostile confines of Toronto's home fortress, where the Reds were 5-1-4 this year (in league and Canadian Championships play), as if to tell Tyrone Marshall, "Hey, whose league blows now?".

For Toronto, the tournament's results tell a different story. This season began with such promise with a talented cast of new players and a fresh head coach. There have been glimpses of brilliance, certainly, but by and large, the utopian future has failed to materialize. All certainly isn't lost yet, and a 6-6-4 record isn't bad, but it's not quite up to the expectations that had been placed upon this side (and the 1-6-0 record away from home is utterly terrible), and as such is disappointing. Losing a tournament where they were clearly favourites, where the format was to their advantage, where their players publicly insulted the other teams and where despite dismal early results, they still only needed a one-goal win in the final, held in the friendly surroundings of BMO Field: well, I'm not sure that disappointment is a strong enough word for that.

The other club that gets a boost out of this is Vancouver. Yes, they were miserable against the Impact, and that's why they didn't claim the championship themselves, but Montreal wouldn't have taken the title without the Whitecaps' surprising victory and draw against TFC. Thus, they get the kingmaker prestige, if not the glory awarded to the monarch himself. They also benefit from the increased fan interest arising from this competition, which will hopefully carry over to their regular-season matches. They and Montreal proved that the USL is not to be trifled with, and that should only help them in the future.

For the leagues involved, the greater positive impact must be for the USL. Their league receives little national press as it is, and when there is any coverage at all, a good bit of it downplays its quality. The performances of Vancouver and Montreal in this competition show that the USL can hold its own, and those performances aren't isolated: consider the US Open Cup, which involves American MLS and USL teams, and has an all-USL semifinal coming up in August between the Seattle Sounders and the Charleston Battery.

Overall, there's no question that MLS has the bigger crowds, the greater exposure, the higher profile, the increased revenues and the better players on the whole, but the gap between the two leagues on the field is not as wide as many have claimed. I don't think that necessarily hurts MLS, though: a strong USL develops players for MLS, builds the soccer fanbase in cities without MLS franchises and provides a good indication of if cities will support soccer to an extent where they'd be a strong candidate for an expansion franchise. A strong USL also builds interest in the Canadian championship and the US Open Cup, as those are now real competitions instead of merely a walkover for the higher league. In Canada in particular, it's not only the on-field quality of the USL franchises has been demonstrated, but also the quality of the front offices and marketing divisions, as well as the interest of the fanbase in high-level soccer: more fans showed up for the Whitecaps - TFC match in Vancouver than I've ever seen at Swangard stadium, and there was a real buzz in the city about the game. That answers some questions the league might have had about the Vancouver and Montreal markets, and it also demonstrates that there are some solid rivalries all ready to go if Vancouver and Montreal get expansion franchises. Thus, in the end, TFC's loss might not be so bad for MLS, and it certainly could prove beneficial for soccer in this country.

The one qualifier that dampens this a bit though is success in the next round. I'm sure Montreal will represent Canada well in the CONCACAF Champions League, but the longer the competition goes on, the higher the chance that they'll revert to their USL form becomes. Based solely on the talent on the roster and their normal level of play, Toronto might have been able to go even further in the next competition, which could have been a bigger boost for soccer across Canada. We'll have to wait and see how that plays out.

Related: I was more concerned in this post about discussing the ramifications of Montreal's win than the on-field action, but it was certainly an exciting and entertaining match in my view, particularly with all of the pressure TFC put on at the end. If you're looking for more details on the match itself, Duane may have some later, but there's also an excellent Canadian Press recap here. It's currently the top story on globesports.com, and that's something that only bodes well for the beautiful game in Canada, regardless of which team's scarf adorns your neck.


John Edwards said...

I'll leave the obvious "MLS Blows" comment to others. :-)

To add to Andrew's comments about the USL teams' following, the Whitecaps have always had decent support. The club's longevity helps, since they go back to the CSL's 86ers. Playing in Swangard hurts, though, because they top out at 6,000 fans.

Montreal has a very strong following in its market. The English and French media both cover the team extensively (in some ways filling the column inches left vacant by the Expos) and their games are on SRC.

Overall, I think the perception of the USL First Division suffered because the Toronto Lynx were never able to make an impact in the GTA marketplace.

Both current franchises have undergone renewal in the past few years, Vancouver with their new owner and credible stadium proposal, and Montreal with their new owner and brand new stadium.

The difference in these matches is that these were really the first chance for both teams to test themselves against the MLS. That's an opportunity that the other USL-1 teams have had in the US Open Cup. The Whitecaps' cousins to the south in Seattle regularly upset MLS teams in that competition.

I'd like to see Vancouver and Montreal both come into the MLS sooner rather than later. I'm not sure how much of a long-term proposition USL 1 is. I can see it getting squeezed with teams leaving either for the MLS or USL 2.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

You make a very good point about the failure of the Lynx hurting the USL, John: while they were still in it, and especially when there were teams (briefly) in Edmonton and Calgary, the USL was the place to be for Canadian soccer. It never really got a ton of attention outside of Vancouver and Montreal, though. In the end, MLS is the obvious goal for both franchises, and I think this series will probably help with that: both the Whitecaps and Impact showed that they can pull in some crowds against high-quality opposition, and it also demonstrated that there are some instant rivalries all ready to go if either team makes it to MLS. Montreal probably will get there reasonably soon due to the new stadium, but if Vancouver council ever decides they're willing to take a free stadium from Greg Kerfoot, I could see them getting into MLS too: there's a large local appetite for soccer, a great ownership/executive group (that might even include Steve Nash at some point) and natural rivalries with Seattle and Toronto.

sager said...

... if Vancouver council ever decides they're willing to take a free stadium from Greg Kerfoot, I could see them getting into MLS too.


Good stuff, as always, let's hope that Mtl. and Van are in the MLS sooner rather than later.

Incidentally, BlogTO's post on the game is side-splitting for all the wrong reasons. The guy spends most of the post whining about the parking -- who drives to a game in Toronto? -- and the restrictions on cameras.

That's what passes for enlightened sports commentary in T.O., though.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

They got some bloody good shots with that camera though, even with a confiscated lens: that's way better than anything I've been able to get at a sports game when I'm not official media. It is pretty funny that he barely talks about the game, though. Just wait until TFC becomes the new Leafs: the place to be seen for all the city's fans who aren't really fans. If tickets get any more expensive, it might just turn out that way. One nice thing about Vancouver still being in the USL is I can go to 4 or 5 games for the price of one MLS match...

sager said...

Believe it or not, I only paid $30 (face was $70) for my ticket last wknd since it was bought from a season ticket holder who couldn't attend (hope this doesn't get him in trouble, but we behaved -- only threw one streamer toward the pitch.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Man, I'm jealous... I had to pay around $90 for an upper-bowl ticket earlier this year back when I was still in Toronto (got it off Ebay, which seems to be one of the few ways to get TFC tickets these days).

Duane Rollins said...

You can get anyone a ticket at face at pretty much anytime...you just need to know where to look. Let me know the next time you want to see a game Andrew and I'll get you in there for about $30. I might even be able to get you into the supporters section if you are willing to squeeze...

sager said...

Buch has a much better chance of squeezing in than I do.