Toronto FC has arrived in Toronto again.
The 2016 lid-lifter at the "new" BMO Field had the same feel as it did nine years ago with one major difference. This team is good, really good.
The 2007 edition of Toronto FC was very much a fledgeling expansion team with a youthful, energetic and naïve fan base that made BMO Field the place to be.The stadium itself was considered a gem in a league that played most of its games in cavernous, empty NFL stadiums and taking throw-ins off of pitcher's mounds in minor league baseball parks. The stadium, along with the passion of the supporters made BMO Field an imposing fortress that intimidated visiting players.
Over the years, that fortress had become badly battered, weather-beaten under the stress of Toronto's climate and suffering the weight of dreadful results and growing discontent from the same people who had originally made BMO Field great. The stadium and the team badly needed a facelift.
Last night, that facelift after 18 months of construction was fully unveiled and it is magnificent. Mingling with supporters in the south end prior to Toronto's 1-0 win over FC Dallas it very quickly became apparent that the team's most passionate and at times jaded fans were pleasantly surprised, if not in awe of BMO Field 2.0. Our house is back as one of the best grounds in MLS. By North American standards, this house of football worship is a cathedral. It is a sporting gem that this team, its fans and this city can be proud of.
The most common theme sprinkled throughout most conversations was that for the first time, BMO Field feels like a large European stadium. It is a stadium that is fit for a big club. One season seat holder since day one, who is originally from Denmark mentioned that there are no stadiums in the Scandinavian leagues that even come close to what BMO Field has become.
The second pleasant surprise for fans is that the north end doesn't look completely barren and that the party patio actually looked quite good. Most fans are still smarting over the removal of the scoreboard end stand and the reason for its removal is still met with annoyance. However, the sentiment is that it looks much better than the vast emptiness that fans were afraid of.
It feels like hyperbole to say that this was a must win game only nine games into the season, but it was a must win for TFC. This wasn't a critical game for placing in the table, but no one will baulk at sitting second in the East with nine games played, eight of which were on the road.
Toronto FC had to get this right for its fans, some of whom have suffered through every game and some who may have been there for the first time. The reds could not afford the thud that they served up against Houston a year ago in front of a sellout crowd. The 30,025 in attendance last night wanted to party and celebrate a new beginning. They didn't want the same old results.
TFC wilted last year under the pressure of the emotions and expectation and sent what had been a boisterous crowd home in relative silence. Michael Bradley had talked earlier this week about not having a repeat of that experience.
The team last night fed off of the emotion in the stands and lived up to expectations on the pitch. The result was an important three points and even more important, supporters leaving whose spirits would not be dampened by a postgame downpour. Last night, Toronto was watching and paying attention to what was happening at BMO Field and in a city that is starting to puff out its sporting chest with bravado, TFC fed the growing ego that Toronto is a city of winners.
It seems fitting that on a night of rebirth for this club, it was the newest members of the team, the ones untarnished by the past who made the biggest difference.
Tsubasa Endoh has had growing pains as he navigates through his rookie season with Toronto FC. His work rate and energy can't be questioned but sometimes his exuberance gets the best of him. That was evident last night early on when he very well may have taken a goal away from Jozy Altidore. Endoh sent a Sebastian Giovinco cross high and wide of the target not realising that Altidore was behind him and in a better position at the back post to put the ball on target.
Endoh more than atoned for the mistake later he scored what would prove to be the winner, taking a perfectly placed pass from Giovinco and finding the back of the net with a lovely left foot finish.
The new look backline was on display for the home fans for the first time and did not disappoint. The additions of Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor and Clint Irwin compliment hold overs Damian Perquis and Justin Morrow. Perquis was often the lightning rod for supporter angst last year as he struggled to find his way in his first season in MLS. Those struggles are now a distant memory. His play gets stronger as the partnership with Drew Moor in central defense grows.
The goals still aren't going in for Jozy Altidore, but his play last night was man of the match material. Altidore was involved in everything going forward and he was a nightmare for Dallas defenders. His work rate was immense. Some fans will continue to criticise Altidore as long as he can't find the back of the net, but the criticism is wholly unwarranted. He should have scored last night and if he continues to put in the effort that he did against FC Dallas it won't be long before the goals start to flow for Altidore.
The last word is for you, the thirty plus thousand who made last night a truly special occasion. BMO Field has been transformed over the past nine years from a glorified US high school football stadium with artificial turf into a real soccer stadium that can stand up with some of the best and you were the ones who made it happen. You,the fans demanded grass, MLSE installed grass and is committed to keeping that grass even with the upcoming ground share arrangement with the Canadian Football League about to start. You asked for a roof to keep the intensity of the crowd noise in the stadium and keep the rain out. You now have the canopies; the sound stays in the stadium, whether the rain will stay out remains to be seen.
BMO Field is now a really beautiful facility, but it is just steel and concrete; the fans made it a special place to be last night. The energy inside the ground was perhaps the best that it's been in the history of the stadium. Your voices didn't go unnoticed by Toronto FC players and coaches. Greg Vanney mentioned in his post-match media brief how moved he and the team were by the crowd.
"We've all just, for the last five minutes, been talking about the national anthem when the stadium is in full voice and singing the national anthem. I'm not Canadian but I was so proud of the city, and Canadians, and our fans, and everybody for that moment. It brings a tear to my eye every time they are in full voice like that, it's so impressive."
The fortress and its defenders are back and it's better than ever. Should the team on the pitch continue to play as well as it has in the early part of this campaign, there will be more special nights to come.