Toronto FC will be feeling the tremors of the shockwave sent around the soccer world last night when the United States was eliminated from World Cup qualifying.
Two of the clubs’ most important players, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, played the entirety of the States’ fatal 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago. They must now brace themselves for the immense fallout that will follow one of the darkest moments in their country’s soccer history.
The link to Toronto goes well beyond that, however. Last night’s result has implications that relate to scheduling, morale and the future of the sport in both the league and region.
It’s complicated. There are no doubt some immediate benefits to the loss for TFC, at least superficially. But looking at the big picture, this is likely to be a result that hurts soccer in North America, and TFC could take some collateral damage as a result.
After all, World Cup years are just about the only time when soccer is able to stand out in the incredibly saturated sporting landscape. The growth soccer has had south of the border is directly correlated to the country making every World Cup since 1986.
With the sport’s best commercial now lacking a patriotic angle, it is going to be a tough sell to American audiences. Coverage that would have otherwise been allocated to soccer will go to other forms of entertainment, and interest in the sport will follow.
Any decline in TV ratings, merchandise purchases and attendances are sure to impact aspects like expansion, sponsorship and the salary cap ceiling. All of these have been on the rise rapidly in recent years, so a sudden decline would hurt ambitious clubs like Toronto.
The product on the field in MLS has been improving every year, and teams possessing the quality of TFC would be impossible to put together just a few years ago. So any negative adjustment to the salary cap would hurt the level of play.
Stagnation in the growth of MLS couldn’t come at a worse time than now, either, as the league is going to come under heavy fire from those who believe it to be the reason for the U.S. program’s downfall. Last night’s result only aids the narrative that the league isn’t up to international standards.
With so many soccer leagues around the world that are easily viewable, the league’s reputation matters a lot. It matters in terms of teams’ ability to not only recruit fans but players, coaches and staff as well.
It all adds up for Toronto. The better the reputation of the league they play, the more popularity it will get which means more money invested and a greater ability to buy world-class players and further raise the team and league’s reputation. If anything in that ecosystem is disturbed, there will be implications for TFC.
The extent of the damage done by this result may never become truly clear, but at least in the short-term the league, and soccer in the United States, is going to have a tougher time continuing to grow.
It will, however, have some short-term positive side effects for Toronto, which we would be remiss not to mention. Gone are the scheduling headaches that would have come with sandwiching the CONCACAF-AFC play-off series involving the United States in between rounds of the MLS playoffs.
Toronto will be spared having two of their most important players fly across the World to Australia for the away leg. Provided both are still around, they will also get them for the entire summer of 2018.
At the same time, it isn’t clear what mental impact this will have on the pair. Bradley and Altidore are both thick-skinned and disciplined athletes who have had to shake off years of often unfair criticism for both club and country. But last night has to be one of the most heartbreaking moments in both of their careers.
It could have been worse: thankfully Toronto still has two league matches left for them to refocus. Even worse would have been the U.S. qualifying for the play-off only to lose to Australia, leaving Bradley and Altidore tired and demoralized.
There is also the theory that this could motivate both of these players, and that they will now see an even more enticing prize in the MLS Cup. Maybe, but Altidore and Bradley are already two of the hardest-working players in the lineup.
So while some of the minor details related to the United States’ failure to qualify for Russia 2018 look positive for Toronto FC, it is only part of the story. Looking at the situation as a whole paints a far more gloomy picture.