As an American soccer fan, I admit that at times I can get too caught up in what MLS is doing to develop American soccer players for the U.S. Men’s National Team. I can get overly worked up when USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann takes a dig at MLS, wanting to quickly defend the league I find myself most passionate about. It is at these times I have to remind myself of two things.
First, the USMNT is not part of MLS and whatever digs or decisions Klinsmann chooses to make are independent of the enjoyment I get from watching MLS matches. MLS is not in the business of making the USMNT look good, but is in the business of building its own brand and securing its place in the hierarchy of professional soccer/football leagues.
Secondly, MLS is an international league. With teams in Canada, it would be foolish to focus solely on the development of soccer in the United States. Their vision has to be broader and more expansive. In order to remain viable across North America, the Canadian teams need to be able to thrive as well. As someone who is quite found of the “Neighbors to the North” and wants to see a growing and thriving MLS, success in Canada is something that I feel is very important.
Yet, it is on this second point that MLS faces maybe its biggest problem heading into the off season. Toronto FC has once again missed the playoffs. Nothing new by itself but remembering the big offseason payouts to bring in Gilberto Souza Junior, Michael Bradley, and Jermain Defoe, this most recent failure is certainly a big problem for MLS.
How long can MLS realistically expect fans in Toronto to show up and support a team that seems completely allergic to the post season? Seven years is a long time in sports and if the fans are asked to sit through another tumultuous season or watch as the team gets blown up and rebuilt again, well, they may just look to throw their support behind another team. Or perhaps even another sport.
After all, how likely is it that a potential fan of TFC would be drawn to the Impact of Montreal or the Vancouver Whitecaps? The Canadian markets in existence now are so boldly unique unto themselves that it makes any crossover support unlikely.
In the United States, there is very little crossover fans between Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York; the biggest markets. It’s the secondary markets that fill in the map that really allow a sport to take off across the country. Dallas and Kansas City allow fans in the Midwest alternatives to root for, apart from Chicago. Just like Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Jose and Salt Lake do for the East and West Coast fans respectfully.
Where are the secondary markets across Canada? FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury FC are members of the NASL and I’m sure that MLS would rather soccer fans attention not be directed there. But what is the likelihood of Canadian MLS expansion if Toronto FC continues to look like such an abject failure?
The decisions made this off-season by Toronto FC are tremendously important to the growth of the MLS in the Great White North. Personally, I believe it would be terribly detrimental to look to unload any of the three Designated Players, especially Bradley or Defoe. I would much rather see TFC reevaluate their managerial approach to the games and how they select players to fit in around their stars before blowing up the roster.
Whatever decisions are made and regardless of the direction ownership chooses to go, there is a great deal of weight on Toronto FC’s shoulders. MLS is really pushing the expansion agenda right now but they are not just lazily handing out franchises (just ask Las Vegas and Miami). If Canada wants any part of the MLS growth, Toronto FC’s success is a necessity.
Major markets must prove themselves to be viable before secondary markets can come into play. While I love the team in Vancouver and am really pulling for success in Montreal, the biggest market must find success. For Canada, growth starts with Toronto.
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