As Toronto FC prepares to meet the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final, the rosy predictions for the Reds and their impact on the league turned out to be all right
Saturday, December 9, 2017 – Print Edition, Page S1

In 2006, shortly before Toronto FC's I debut season, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber did a travelling outreach to the colonies.

Most people up here didn't understand what he was peddling, but like the most successful sports, he won them over with easy confidence and muscular blandness.

"If you were to look at a map of North America and ask yourself, 'What is the formula for success?' Toronto would be at the centre point of that map," Garber said.

It was an odd thing to say about a club that did not yet have a single player under contract, but it sounded great.

"I get this country," Garber also said, which was even odder. But you appreciated the enthusiasm. At the time, it was not widely felt.

When asked during the same lead-in period about the team's outlook, then Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment boss Richard Peddie said: "If it's not doing well in the first few years, we'll stick with it." As rousing speeches from generals go, this was somewhere south of 'Once more unto the breach' and somewhere just a bit north of 'Which way is the guillotine?' The going theory among interested observers, even the ones who'd done the investing, was that Toronto FC would do okay. Not great, not terrible, but viable.

Hopefully. Only Garber seemed to expect more.

Before their inaugural season, FC outsold the rest of the league in terms of season tickets. That's bog standard for new clubs in successful leagues - back then, you might've uncharitably said real leagues - but it was a miraculous renaissance in MLS.

Once he'd been proved right, Garber could not help himself from crowing at his own foresight.

Two years into the Toronto FC experiment, he came back up to attend the MLS all-star game. The team was terrible, the game was terrible, the jury was still out on the David Beckham gamble, but Garber was alight.

All he wanted to talk about was Toronto, as though it was some cool new band he'd discovered before all his friends had heard of it.

He declared this franchise the "blueprint" for all other clubs. Its founding was "one of the key moments in Major League Soccer history." BMO Field - then essentially a bunch of steel girders wrapped in corrugated tin - was "one of the best environments in professional sports."

Professional sports! Don Garber wasn't the commissioner of a sports league. He was a dispenser of civic back-rubs.

For many long years, while Toronto FC was more wretched than the house league team at a gulag, he was the only person who truly believed.

Not that Toronto FC would win. But that its plug-andplay business plan - build a cheap stadium downtown; reach out to hipsters and wannabe ultras; underprice the local competition; sit back - would turn a league of losers into a scrappy outsider.

He was right again.

A decade on, MLS is enjoying rapid expansion in every metric - number of clubs, viewership, team values. Its average attendance - 22,000-or-so a game - puts it just behind Italy's Serie A and just ahead of France's Ligue 1.

Considered as a holistic product, MLS isn't quite an elite league in the world, but it is growing steadily closer to that goal.

Toronto did that.Fifteen years ago, you couldn't give these teams away.

Twelve years ago, Toronto got one for $10-million (U.S.).

A dozen cities applied for franchises in the next round of expansion. The two to be announced in the coming days will pay $150-million each.

There is a clear line separating the time before Toronto's arrival - when the league was a functional charity surviving on the largesse of two billionaire obsessives, Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz - and after it.

No one says that out loud any more. When they used to, the team was so bad that it sounded like faint praise.

When they do it now, it sounds like the sort of thing any sports exec will say about any burg (as long as they're currently standing inside the city limits).

Garber is back in town for Saturday afternoon's MLS Cup final between Toronto and the Seattle Sounders.

The game has its issues. It will likely be played in unbearable conditions - sub-zero temps, a hard wind blowing in off the lake, possible snow. You wouldn't curl in this sort of weather, but because of MLS's ungainly playoff system, they will do the soccer. Also, a Canadian team is never good for U.S. ratings, and that's still the focus.

Nine years after that round of all-star high-fives, Garber was not alight this time around. He did not gush over the city or the franchise. In fact, he hardly mentioned Toronto outside the context of the game.

What he did was recite a series of numbers, statistics and percentages meant to hypnotically remind you of the league's growth. He capped it off with a paean to the league's nicest surprise, Atlanta, where 50,000 people are paying to watch middling soccer in an NFL arena. Apparently, they all just like the idea of being together, wearing scarves and shouting.

Ten years ago, Don Garber would have died of pleasure if you'd told him that was possible. On Friday, he called it "unexpected" and continued on to the next line item in his notes.

Finally, he got to his real business - slapping around the city of Columbus, Ohio, for refusing to give him a stadium.

As tends to happen when taxpayers get wind of a windfall being dropped in the pocket of kajillionaires, Ohioans would rather that not happen.

But Garber is emboldened now. If Columbus won't do what he wants, Austin will (and will probably get the team). So will Indianapolis, and Detroit, and Charlotte ... the list goes on.

As a result, Garber was imperious in his disdain of Ohio's hurt feelings.

"You have to be strong and viable with each team in order to move forward," he said. The inference was clear - weakness is no longer tolerated.

This was a new Don Garber. He doesn't need to sell people any more. They sell him.

Toronto did that as well.

Associated Graphic

Follow the bouncing ball: Top, midfielder and team captain Michael Bradley; right, striker Sebastian Giovinco; and striker Jozy Altidore. TFC will try to win its first championship on Saturday in an MLS Cup rematch against the Seattle Sounders.

MLS commissioner Don Garber had much to crow about when he gave a state-of-the-league address in in Toronto on Friday. For one, average attendance - 22,000-or-so a game - puts it just behind Italy's Serie A.


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