TORONTO, Canada—The calm before the storm. It’s the eve of Toronto FC’s return to BMO Field to play in front of fans for the first time in 497 days and there’s a real buzz going around the city.
With TFC being the first major sports team to host games with fans in Toronto in over a year, naturally, team President Bill Manning has been busy promoting the monumental occasion, hopping on media calls. On Thursday, Manning joined TSN 1050 Radio where he was asked a variety of questions, including what kind of emotion he was feeling with the club returning home to play matches for the first time in almost a year.
“A lot of emotions,” said Manning. “We missed being home. We’ve essentially been gone for a season and a half, even more. It really hit me when, as a sports team we travel a lot, and when our charter landed in Toronto last Thursday morning, the crowd erupted in applause. Everyone who was on board, there was just such an emotion that happened, spur of the moment thing, and everyone was just like we’re finally home!
“It was a really good feeling, and now that we’re going to play at home on Saturday, get some fans back in the building, hopefully this really gives us a boost as we try to get our season back on track here.”
The hope is that the return home provides a much needed spark. It’ll be an atmosphere the team hasn’t been around in over a year, and TFC certainly need that boost as they’re currently last place in Major League Soccer, nine points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern conference despite winning their last match.
Manning also offered some insight into how exactly TFC got the green light to host games at BMO Field on July 17. In essence, the TFC President and his team may have finessed their way back, working with MLS to bend their rules to abide with Canada’s current border restrictions and quarantine regulations.
“We’ve been behind the scenes planning for this for a long time,” said Manning. “The news on July 5 that allowed fully vaccinated residents and temporary workers to come back into Canada, that was really the key for us and the catalyst to say ‘hey, we can potentially be playing at home on the 17th and the 21st.’
“Behind the scenes, we were speaking to all levels of government, and we do have an NIE (National Interest Exemption) application in and we were kind of waiting on that, but as it went a little further, we weren’t sure that we could get the NIE approved, so we really worked with the league on what I call playing within the rules that we have here in Canada and really getting the league back on board with that and allow us to play back at home with fully vaccinated travel parties coming into Canada.”
If you’re wondering, that’s why there was much confusion Wednesday afternoon after the league and club announced the return to BMO Field. While the NIE didn’t get approved in time for the return, under the current travel regulations in Canada, those with work permits (aka MLS players and staff) who are fully vaccinated are not subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period. The league was willing to allow the games to go on without unvaccinated parties, which was really the key here.
As expected Manning was also asked about the Jozy Altidore situation. If you missed it, Altidore had been exiled from first-team training after a rift with former head coach Chris Armas in May. After Armas was let go earlier this month, Altidore received a phone call from Manning, asking the Reds’ designated player to return to the club. The TFC No. 17 obliged and has since returned to training.
At first, Manning tried to put a bit of a PR spin on the question (as expected). Here’s his full quote:
“I believe in Jozy and I have for a long time,” said Manning. “He’s delivered in the biggest moments for us. The last year or so has been tough for him, he’s had some injuries, but when we had an opportunity to talk after this kind of all went down, we just talked about rewriting the story here. Let’s look forward. Let’s not focus on why or how the incident and situation happened with he and Chris and the organization—let’s move forward. He wants to play, he wants to help this club win, and he wants to play in front of our fans. I always think we are a better team with Jozy on the field. We just had to work out some stuff, and I think what we did is we both collectively agreed (to) put it behind us and move forward. I’m really excited to see him back on the field. He is a big personality and his personality does influence the team in a lot of ways. I think with him coming back and having something to kind of work for to get us out of the situation we’re in right now and drive us towards the playoffs, I wouldn’t count him out. He’s a big time player and I’m looking forward to having him back in the team.”
But credit to Overdrive host Brian Hayes, who refused to let Manning off the hook that easily. Hayes pressed the TFC President, essentially suggesting to Manning that it appeared Altidore wouldn’t have come back without the dismissal of Armas.
“No I don’t think that’s totally accurate,” replied Manning. “I think it helped. He and Chris had a disagreement and a little situation in the Orlando game, but that wasn’t—I think Jozy was ready to come back, but he still had to come to peace with it as well and how much the team wanted him back and to be part of it. We just talked, we just kind of layed things out, and I think we all came to a really good place in terms of we need each other for us to win, and he wants to feel that we’re behind him. I think there was a lot of emotion in terms of being away from the team, but now the key thing is let’s move forward. Chris not being the head coach right now may have helped, but I don’t think that was the sole reason.”
Read into that what you will.
Finally, Manning was asked about a potential BMO Field expansion ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which will be held between Mexico, the United States, and of course Canada. Back in April, Manning told OneSoccer that the stadium would be expanding to approximately 45,000 seats in preparation for the World Cup. On Thursday, he offered more insight into the ongoing process and what exactly the expansion could look like.
For context, Toronto have yet to receive the rights to be a host city, but as Manning points out, the team is working towards that goal every week.
“We’re very, very involved with the process FIFA had moved back to February, the announcement of the final 16 cities. I’m on a call once a week ... trying to make sure Toronto is one of the final cities. We have a really good team behind us that has been working to put that together.
“When you talk about BMO Field, there will be some upgrades as part of the World Cup 2026 that meets FIFA standards. Obviously, we’re going to need more seating which we have a temporary solution, similar to when we had the hockey games there.
“We feel we have a really good presentation. This is a city that’s a global city. Any team that’s going to be based here in Toronto will have a really good home base of fans. We’re really excited about not only what it can do for TFC and building up BMO Field and our team, but soccer in Canada. I think it’s going to be really big boost for our country and the sport here.”
It’s exciting times if you’re a Toronto FC fan. The Reds take on Orlando City SC — at home — on Saturday with kickoff time slated for 7:30 pm ET. How many of you will be in attendance? Let me know in the comments!