Sports-mad Toronto 'starving for a championship' ahead of MLS Cup
It has been 23 years and six weeks since Joe Carter deposited Mitch Williams' two-ball, two-strike pitch over the left field fence of the Toronto Skydome to clinch the Toronto Blue Jays' second consecutive Major League Baseball World Series championship. Since 1993, Canada's most populated city has endured a title drought from all four of its major North American sports teams: baseball's Blue Jays, basketball's Raptors, hockey's Maple Leafs and soccer's Toronto FC.
As such, a long wait can end on Saturday night when Toronto FC hosts the Seattle Sounders in the 2016 MLS Cup. For many of the expected 35,000-plus in attendance, it could be the first time they experience a team from the city winning a championship. Anticipation and excitement have been growing since last Wednesday's epic 5-2, extra-time triumph over the Montreal Impact, and a spectacular atmosphere is assured at BMO Field for the championship game.
"It'll be bigger and louder than the Montreal game," said Jeff MacMillan, manager of the Brazen Head Irish Pub and Restaurant, which is just a 10-minute walk away from the stadium and serves as a prematch spot for hundreds of Toronto FC fans.
Ahead of the Montreal game, the pub was full by 4 p.m., three hours before kick-off. On Saturday, the plan is to open the doors at noon. MacMillan expects the 420-person-capacity watering hole to be bursting from the seams with title-hungry fans ready to see history made.
"This city is starving for a championship. The supporters are so passionate. It's a real party. I think it'll be more electric than the Montreal game," said MacMillan.
That's a tall order. Toronto FC's victory over their rivals from Quebec will long live in MLS lore, as Benoit Cheyrou's 98th-minute goal provoked a camera-rattling reaction normally reserved for fourth-quarter comebacks in college football strongholds like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or Auburn, Alabama.
And it would be no surprise if last week's 1.4 million viewership for the Montreal game -- a record for an MLS match in Canada -- is topped on Saturday night. If the fringe fans and curious onlookers weren't that interested in Toronto FC before last Wednesday, they surely are now.
"This team has the city's attention now. Even pedestrian fans are invested. It doesn't matter who the opponent is," said Phil Tobin, the president of the Red Patch Boys, a Toronto FC supporters group 400 members strong that resides in Section 112 of the southeast corner of BMO Field. "It doesn't matter that it's Seattle and not a rival like Montreal. This is the final; it'll be louder."
One other element that will be in play is the cold. Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-20s at kickoff, and with winds coming off nearby Lake Ontario, it will surely feel even colder. But for TFC fans who will have all day to "prepare" for Saturday night's 8 p.m. ET start, the frozen temperatures will only drive them to make life more difficult for the Sounders.
"We like to use the cold as a home field advantage. We take the weather as a challenge. The more adverse the weather is, the more dug in we get. We rise to the challenge. We'll all be packed in nice and tight," said Tobin.
In their 10th MLS season, Toronto FC still has a ways to go when it comes to matching the number of fans who follow the Maple Leafs. Hockey is Canada's national sport, and the Maple Leafs will always be top dog in the city.
And while the Blue Jays have a pair of World Series titles to their name, and the Toronto Raptors of the NBA reached the 20-year plateau last season, Toronto FC fans have garnered plenty of respect in their short tenure in MLS for making BMO Field one of the tougher venues to visit, as evidenced by their 11-3-6 home record in 2016.
"The Leafs have the biggest fan base, and I'd say the Raptors fans are probably the most rabid," said MacMillan. "But in terms of being the loudest, there's no question is has to be Toronto FC fans. They definitely take the cake. They will go all night if they have to."
It could well make the difference when their team takes the field for a shot at history.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .