City of Toronto's embrace of MLS Cup run has the Reds under pressure
TORONTO -- Most of the attention within the sporting circles of Canada's largest city was fixated on the early-season showdown between the hometown Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre.
Toronto has the second-most points in the NHL's Eastern Conference. Led by a burgeoning young superstar named Auston Matthews, the Leafs have as legitimate of hopes for ending their 50-year Stanley Cup drought as they have in ages.
This is a hockey town, first and foremost -- the sport's Hall of Fame sits right there on the corner of Yonge and Wellington -- so of course the Maple Leafs assumed top billing for the early part of the week.
More remarkable were the reports that immediately followed Leafs-Flames highlights on TSN's SportsCentre and other major sports channels. The Raptors' hot start, the Blue Jays' plans for baseball's winter meetings and the aftermath of the Argonauts' Grey Cup title were all made to wait behind previews of Saturday evening's MLS Cup rematch between host Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders (4 p.m. EST on ESPN/WatchESPN).
Now, granted, having your championship game be given more than a passing nod of recognition in its host city is something of a low bar to hurdle. But in how many other major markets with multiple other top-level professional teams would MLS Cup earn similar treatment?
The fact is, even 22 years into Major League Soccer's existence, hearing it casually name-dropped on news-talk radio or in conversations between strangers on the subway is still a bit jarring.
The tenor of the coverage is important, too: Not patronizing, but straight news on the status of Jozy Altidore's ankle, or how weather conditions might affect the style of play. Again, low bar, but such is life in a league that still has a longer way to go in attracting casual interest than it likes to admit.
Beneath the low buzz of anticipation exists an undercurrent of anxiety. Having finally caught the city's wandering eye, there is a sense among Toronto's soccer community that the Reds must take advantage of what could be a fleeting chance to make good on their promise.
Last year's MLS Cup loss was a letdown, to be sure, but there were extenuating circumstances: It was TFC's first-ever final; the Reds were in control of the match throughout; Stefan Frei's extra-time save of Altidore's goal-bound header was the type of transcendent moment that makes even the curmudgeonly tip their caps in appreciation.
This time around, though? Having gotten to host the title game as favorites for two years running? Hindsight is unlikely to be as kind. Toronto has been building toward this moment for the better part of two seasons. A victory would ensure consideration on the shortlist of greatest MLS teams ever. A loss could see TFC written off as a flash in the pan, a would-have-been that couldn't get over the line.
The tension created by the disparity between glory and infamy has been evident in the TFC ranks. Whereas Seattle's news conference on Thursday was lighthearted, coach Brian Schmetzer cracking private jokes with Frei and forward Clint Dempsey, Toronto's was all business. Altidore answered questions about his injury status with short, terse answers; Michael Bradley was his typically intense self.
Nerves have frayed throughout this postseason, both within the team and among the TFC fan base. The second leg of the Eastern Conference finals here at BMO Field was almost unbearably tense, the crowd beseeching their squad for a breakthrough, that emotion seeping into the players.
The Reds have had more than a year to dwell on last year's Cup final, Bradley said, and you can see how much it means to all of them in their collective body language.
"For me, revenge is not really part of it," Bradley said. "It's Seattle again. I think we're all excited it's Seattle again. For me, the way I look at things, this is about our group of guys, our club, this city, the road that we have all taken to get here, what it meant after the disappointment and the heartbreak of last year, to have to live each and every day, knowing in the back of our minds that this is all that we wanted: to give ourselves another crack."
Another crack at a championship, and another crack to make further inroads in their home city; opportunities like Saturday's don't come around all that often, especially in MLS, and TFC are all too aware of the stakes.
Last word to Bradley, the American who has so taken to his adopted Canadian home: "In general, this is a sports-mad city. It has a way of wrapping its arms around its teams and its athletes. If you can embrace that, and understand that it's a privilege and a responsibility, and that it won't always be perfect -- if you have character and personality and are willing to represent them and the city in the best possible way -- it's incredible. The relationship that our team has with our fans is incredible. It's so unique. And we're going to draw on that in a big way on Saturday."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.