One of the main talking points of Toronto FC's win at Real Esteli was the difficulties of playing in Concacaf, the climate, the refereeing, and in the case of this game the tiny stadium, rabid fans and terrible pitch. While the refereeing does make me angry as they should always at least try to look like they're trying to be neutral, everything else is perfectly fair game. Whereas the reaction from Toronto fans including myself ranged from making fun of the pitch and wondering about the craziness of the crowd and the possibility of piss-bags, to genuine if condescending concern for the health of the players, it really should all have been celebrated, as one of the grand traditions of football, and especially cup football, the Home Field Advantage.
As far as the pitch is concerned, TFC fans and players can be as critical as they want, but without making it a deathtrap, Esteli and other teams should be doing what they can to help themselves win. If that means ridiculously long grass, or a muddy and bouncy pitch that makes it difficult for the (theoretically) more talented team to play their natural game, then so be it. There's too much emphasis these days on having perfectly manicured pitches that allow the best players to play their best game, but a game like Tuesday night's really takes the game back to a less sterile and frankly more interesting time. A crappy pitch and a quirky stadium can be a great equaliser, (as an example look at how TFC's home record has worsened since the plastic pitch was ripped up, coincidence?) and pretty football be damned, any home team should be doing whatever it can to get a result. Also, all those things, and yes I'm going to include comically bad refereeing in this, make the game more interesting (even if you're the inconvenienced away team, a win that includes overcoming adversity has got to be more satisfying no?) so to Real Esteli and all the other small teams with imperfect stadiums, I salute you.
Anyway, the point of this isn't really the pitch, it's about that kind of crowd, and how it could work for Canada, and I think for the first time, I might be ready to give up my selfish desire to have as many games as possible in Toronto, and get behind Mission Moncton, or St John's or another of those provincial backwaters that make up the rest of Canada (I kid, I kid, don't go, keep reading).
As noted in the comments section of my match report, last night's game had a great atmosphere. There was only roughly 5,000 fans there, less than half of even the feeblest TFC crowd so far this year, but packed into the tiny stadium, with the stands right up against the sidleline, it was a seriously enjoyable atmosphere, at least until Toronto's second goal sucked the energy out of the crowd. Growing up back in England, especially being a small club supporter as I was, one of the great footballing days of the year is the FA Cup third round, when all your fancy premier league clubs faced the possibility of having to play against non-league teams in tin pot ramshackle grounds that they normally wouldn't be caught dead in, and this match had that kind of feel, a small crowd genuinely excited enough to make themselves sound a hell of a lot louder then they had any right to be.
That sort of hyper-partisan crowd can be a real advantage, and let's face facts here, a) When (surely when not if) Canada gets to the next round of WCQ and is playing against Honduras, Cuba, and probably Panama, it's going to need all the advantage it can get and b) Toronto's never really going to provide that kind of crowd is it?
It reminds me of that supportlocalfootball video, talking about 11,000 fans in a 5,000 seat stadium, when Canada played in St John's, Newfoundland and clinched qualification to the 1986 World Cup. I didn't see that game, but it sounds like it would have been amazing and that the crowd would have been a big help in winning that crucial game. It's the same reason the US always plays it's important games against Mexico in Columbus' small ground in the middle of nowhere, when they could easily fill an NFL stadium anywhere down South.
I just can't see Bmo Field ever creating that kind of atmosphere for a Canada game. First of all there's the immigrant problem, as pretty much every country out there has an immigrant community in Toronto, and even if not, it's easily accessible to determined supporters from all over the North Eastern US. Secondly, I hope I'm about to be proven wrong on this, but aside from a small and vocal group of a few thousand, there doesn't really seem to be much enthusiasm among the Toronto soccer community to fill the rest of the seats and keep them from being snapped up by the opposition fans, and turning it into a hostile anti-Canada, pro whoever crowd, which is the last thing Canada needs.
Having the game in a smaller stadium, that's harder to get to for out of towners will lead to a very pro-Canada crowd, and as the Real Esteli fans proved last night, if that small crowd is pumped up enough for a big event, they can easily make up for the smaller numbers. Though I want to be able to go to games myself, I'd much rather watch on TV as Canada plays in front of a rabid home crowd than attend in person as they play in front of a crowd that's 50/50 at best, and gives no hometown advantage at all.
Toronto has been given a great opportunity to prove itself with these three games against St Lucia, Puerto Rico and St Kitts and Nevis. An argument that I've been clinging to (if only really half believing) is that after disappointing crowds for Friendly games against Peru and Ecuador, when the games really matter the crowd will come out, much as they did against Jamaica back in 2008. Well, these games matter, if we can't come up with, if not a sellout, at least a TFC sized crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 which is noticeably pro Canada, then Toronto doesn't deserve to have any of the more important games next year. We were given a group that it's very possible to qualify from, and we need to ruthlessly get any advantage we can, if that means games going elsewhere then I'm fine with that.
Of course I'm from Toronto, and live a 45 minute walk away from Bmo Field, so I'd love to have that home advantage on my doorstep, hopefully you feel the same way. If you've made it to the end of this, there's a good chance you're from the GTA, and you're clearly at least slightly interested in Canada, so go to the game. Buy tickets, and take as many friends as you can. Let's not force the CSA to make a choice between Toronto or a homefield advantage, let's allow them to have both right here. Canada gets a ground that feels like home, Toronto gets more games, we all win. If not, then I'll get fully behind a move out East.