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Toronto fan passion unsurpassed in MLS

TORONTO -- The first thing you notice is all the red. Whether it is the red scarves, red hats, red jerseys or red jackets, Toronto FC fans are easy to spot when they converge on the southwest part of Toronto, ready to take part in the most impressive display of fan support in Major League Soccer.

While teams throughout the league are struggling to fill their stadiums, Toronto FC has no such problems. The second-year franchise has struck gold with a passionate fan base that has embraced its soccer team, something I saw firsthand on Thursday night when Toronto tied 1-1 against the Red Bulls on "MLS Primetime Thursday."

A typical Toronto FC match day begins with the club's largest supporters' groups, the Red Patch Boys and U-Sector, converging on a pair of local pubs hours before kickoff. Spend some time in Shoeless Joe's, home of the Red Patch Boys, and you almost feel like you are having a pint at The Bishops Blaize in Manchester or The Sandon Pub in Liverpool. The room fills with like-minded fans in red, singing, laughing and creating chants to insult that night's opponent. It's enough to make you want to throw on a red scarf, and it is why thousands have become "converted."

"We already had soccer fans in this city when the team started, but we're seeing people get converted and it's a great thing," said Jack DePoe, president of Red Patch Boys. "What we have here is something special, something that reflects the city of Toronto and the passion we have, and it's something you can't find with any other team in the city."

As impressive as the pre-game scene is, including the fan march from the local pubs to the stadium, the real fun begins inside BMO Field, where empty seats are usually hard to find and where every section of the stadium can be heard and felt from the opening whistle until the final kick. From the non-stop singing, to the jumping around that literally shakes the stadium, to the rousing rendition of 'Oh Canada' that starts the night, the scene is one you would expect to see in Europe or South America and not North America.

No section is as vocal or lively as the stadium's South End, where Toronto FC's top supporters' groups reside. Find a seat in this sea of singing and chanting (as I did on Thursday night) and you have a front-row seat to watch a drum-beating, flag-waving, streamer-throwing and song-shouting army of hardcore fans that serve as BMO Field's amplifier.

"These are people who understand the game and love it and come out here to show that," said Connie Zimmer, a Red Patch Boy member who also handles travel arrangements for the large TFC fan groups that have become the norm at Toronto FC road games (including a contingent of 1,200 at Toronto's match in Columbus earlier this season).

"I knew it would be like this even before the team started playing because this city loves football," Zimmer said. "Before Toronto FC got here, you could see the city shut down when the World Cup would be going on, there's that much love for the sport."

However, not everyone was as sure of Toronto FC being this much of a hit. Move over one section in BMO Field's South End and you can find the U-Sectors, a rowdier alternative to the Red Patch Boys and a supporters' group with ties to soccer in Toronto that extend beyond the arrival of Toronto FC. The U-Sectors was started by fans of the Toronto Lynx, an A-League team that had been the only soccer team in town. After years of seeing crowds at Lynx games usually fall between 2,000 and 4,000, members of the U-Sectors couldn't have imagined the type of scenes that have become the norm at BMO Field, scenes it now helps create.

"I thought there was no chance we would ever have something like this," said Ryan Keay, a leading member of the U-Sectors. "The first game blew me out of the water and it's just something that has kept growing and kept surpassing expectations."

My own expectations for what BMO Field might be like were surpassed when Claudio Reyna strolled over to the southeast corner of the field for a corner kick. The U-Sector pulled out a clever billboard mocking Reyna while seemingly every section in the corner began showering Reyna with crepe paper streamers, which serve as far more of a distraction than a real hazard. Watching the fans throw the streamers was one thing, watching police and security taking the unrolled portions of the streamers and throwing them back to the crowd made me realize just how different BMO Field is than anywhere else in the league.

"A lot of other cities and clubs in the league need to learn from this," Reyna said after Thursday's match. "Whatever they do, it's here in Canada. We love soccer in America, but for whatever reason they really get behind their team here."

When asked whether he had ever faced a shower of projectiles on a corner kick like the one he saw in Toronto, Reyna had to think about it.

"In Central America, with the U.S. teams, we'd get stuff thrown at us, but not as bad as that," Reyna said. "[Toronto fans have some] good aim. They were wrapping it around my ankles and I really had to stop. It was in the way, but it's good. That's great and they've really been a breath of fresh air in this league with the atmosphere they create."

It should be noted that Toronto FC doesn't have the market cornered on passionate supporters' sections. Whether it's La Barra Brava at RFK Stadium, ESC at Giants Stadium or Section 8 at Toyota Park to name a few, most MLS teams do boast strong fan support, just not on the scale of Toronto FC, which can fill its stadium with the type of fans that might only fill one section of other MLS stadiums.

So how did Toronto FC pull this off? The club has benefited from a perfect storm of circumstances to build a strong fan base and unmatched stadium atmosphere. Here is the formula:

You take an expansion team and put it in a city with a large base of soccer fans (preferably a city whose other sports teams haven't done so well). You build a soccer stadium near the heart of the city, with easy access to public transportation, before the team even starts playing. Then you spend money on marketing and promoting and eventually players. Mix that all together and you are going to get off to a successful start in MLS.

Toronto FC is off to that strong start and now that the club actually has a respectable team capable of contending, things should only get better. It might be impossible for other MLS teams to duplicate what Toronto FC has done, but what MLS can hope is that its teams and fans are inspired by TFC's fans and motivated to challenge their success.

This is vital for MLS because an environment like the one found at BMO Field can do more to convert casual observers into passionate soccer fans than a David Beckham or Cuauhtemoc Blanco ever could.

Game previews

You can call last week the week East mauled West. The inter-conference schedule left the Western Conference reeling as the East teams finished a perfect 5-0 against the West, solidifying its status as the stronger of the two conferences.

This week will now let all those East teams beat on each other while the West looks to sort out just who is ready to challenge FC Dallas. With Houston and Chivas USA struggling badly, it is a wide-open race, with defensively-challenged Los Angeles even looking like a good playoff bet thanks to its potent offense.

Saturday

Chicago Fire at New England Revolution

The Fire hasn't played that well on the road this season but has still avoided defeat away from Chicago. That won't be as easy against a New England team looking to avenge the 4-0 drubbing it suffered at Toyota Park last month. Expect the Revs to exact that revenge and expose a Chicago defense that has yet to face a truly tough test this season. Revs 2, Fire 1.

Kansas City Wizards at Columbus Crew

How can you bet against the Crew? The way Columbus is playing these days it is hard to envision anyone going to its stadium and leaving with three points. Kansas City has the talent to escape Ohio with a point, but the Crew attack will find a way, led by Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Crew 2, Wizards 1.

Chivas USA at Houston Dynamo

Remember when most would have called this a Western Conference final preview? It was expected to be one last season (and wasn't) and was expected to be one this season. Instead, both teams are struggling badly and both need a win here to stop the bleeding. Look for Houston to come through at home as Dwayne DeRosario delivers the Dynamo's first win of the season. Dynamo 2, Chivas USA 0.

Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake

Let's see, you have a team (L.A.) that just scored five goals against a team (RSL) that just conceded four goals. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Not so fast. RSL will be back at home and eager to erase the memories of last week's drubbing. The Galaxy attack did look unstoppable against Chivas USA but going on the road to Utah is a little different than being at Home Depot Center. RSL rebounds and burns that shaky Galaxy defense. Real Salt Lake 3, Galaxy 1.

FC Dallas at San Jose Earthquakes

The Earthquakes have fallen back into an offensive funk and won't find an easy time against a Hoops team that is unbeaten on the road this season. When Peguero Jean-Philippe gets fit enough to play a full match the Earthquakes will have a better chance of scoring goals. Until then, I can't see them beating anybody on their upcoming schedule. Kenny Cooper steps up on the road. FC Dallas 1, Earthquakes 0.

Sunday

D.C. United at Colorado Rapids

The Christian Gomez derby should be a great match to watch. Gomez faces D.C. United in what should be an emotional encounter. D.C. doesn't have room for emotions, not with things as tight as they are in the East. Unfortunately for United, Gomez burns his former club and helps the Rapids halt a two-match losing skid. Rapids 2, D.C. United 1.

Last Week: 5-1

Overall: 15-10-4

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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