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Why I’m a fan of Toronto FC

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How the Worst Team in the World™ became my escapism of choice in a dark time.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Toronto FC at Montreal Impact Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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Fair warning: I might not get to Toronto FC for a while here. Bear with me. This is gonna be long, but I hope it’s worth it.

Believe it or not, my local soccer fandom started with the Toronto Lynx, not TFC. The first live soccer game I saw was over at Centennial Park – it must’ve been 13 years ago or so, when I was about eight. The club offered tickets to the day camp I was in that summer, probably hoping to fill their empty seats.

Lower-league North American soccer being the endearing mess that it was back then, we found out after the hour-long bus ride to Etobicoke that the opposing team had forfeited the match. With the little goodwill they’d generated with these kids now at stake, the Lynx decided to play an exhibition game against their female counterparts, the Lady Lynx, instead.

It was awesome. The club asked our group to serve as the anthem mascots, so I got to accompany some semi-pro player onto the field (though come to think of it, it actually could’ve been Atiba Hutchinson). I have no doubt it was a terrible game – I remember distinctly that the men won 5-0, much to the delight of half of us.

I didn’t know who the players were, nor what league they played in, but I still thought they were heroes. That was my first taste of the live soccer experience, and it left me wanting more.

Growing up in the Beaches, Etobicoke was a little too far to make regular trips. I got my fix watching Manchester United on TV, although there’s always something missing from that experience.

Still, soccer on TV was better than nothing. I supported England in the 2006 World Cup with my dad, who grew up in Birmingham in an Irish family (Ireland didn’t qualify). I had my first experience with footballing heartbreak then, learning how common it was for England to lose on penalties in the quarter-finals like they did.

My God, was there a lot more of that to come.

Here’s where TFC enters the story. When the Reds joined MLS in 2007, I stupidly thought – as, I’m sure, many people still do – that FC was the team’s nickname: the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Toronto FC.

My dad steered me clear of that one pretty quickly.

Obviously, with a real professional football team in town, we had to go see them. Dad and I went to our first game that year, and it was a huge step up from that Lynx game. I think it made my dad a little homesick – he’d never been a big football fan growing up, but he’d been surrounded by Aston Villa fans at school. Right from the beginning, the BMO Field experience was unlike anything else in Toronto.

Cavin (batcave13 on Flickr)

The best TFC game I went to in the first couple years was when the LA Galaxy came to town in 2008. A family friend had managed to swing us tickets for one of those little tables along the east touchline. It was a little disappointing that David Beckham sat that one out, but the Reds won 2-0.

I was a rockstar at that front-row table, flattered by the entire refereeing crew coming over to say hi during their pre-game warmups. After that game, TFC let kids go out on the pitch (like the Jays do on Saturdays). I got my shirt signed by Tyler Rosenlund (I later told people it was Dwayne De Rosario, because the only readable part of the autograph was a big R).

To cap off that day, I did something neither Michael Bradley nor Justin Morrow could do: I scored from the penalty spot at BMO Field’s south end. After that, there was no stopping my perilous descent into TFC obsession. I was basically a Canadian Nick Hornby.

I only got to a couple TFC games a year back then, but still kept a keen eye on their ups and downs (mostly downs). Dad did his best to get tickets when he could, or even to other BMO Field events just to get into that venue. One time while riding a ferris wheel at the Ex, I spotted some kind of soccer on the pitch. We ended up spending that night watching Canada beat St. Lucia 5-0.

In 2012, though, I lost my matchday companion. My dad passed away from cancer in October, and I kind of forgot about TFC for a bit. I was 14 at the time.

It took two years for me to want to go back to BMO Field, especially with nobody to go with. Anyway, they were the Worst Team in the World™ at the time. I finally made my return right at the end of the 2014 season, using a pair of tickets that my friend won.

That was the start of what I’d call my Soccer Fandom 2.0. My friend’s seats were for section 113, and although he’s never really been a sports fan even he got a kick out of heckling the Montreal players. I learned then how much fun the south end is.

That day rekindled my love for TFC. By then, I was old enough to buy tickets for myself. The next season, I found a way to get to as many games as I could. With no one to come with me, I went alone, finding my own spot to stand in 112 with the Red Patch Boys. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a friend to go with; I made new ones.

Since then, match days have become my favourite ritual. Head down to Liberty Village early, and join up with the RPB march.

MLS: MLS Cup Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing comes close to the feeling of seeing TFC score from the supporters’ section. It’s pure escapism; for two hours, you forget about everything. I’ve spent many a summer night in the house on Lakeshore, where all problems slip away. Thank God TFC are good now.

I’ve become increasingly absorbed by Toronto FC. I’m actually not sure I’ve ever felt more passionate about something than I did in the playoffs last year. I was at every single game minus the away leg at NYCFC.

For my last TFC anecdote, I’d like to boastfully suggest that what I did last fall pretty much seals my die-hard status. I attended those playoff games even though I was living two hours outside Toronto, studying at Western University. I don’t drive, so for the weeknight games I took a Greyhound into the city on game days, then back to London on the 1 a.m. bus after the final whistle.

For the away leg in Montreal, I bought a solo seat on the supporters’ groups’ same-day bus. I had to take a Greyhound from London to Toronto at four in the morning so I could make the bus departure from BMO Field at nine. That was a rowdy, drunken sing-fest of an eight-hour drive. After the match, we loaded back on the bus for the return trip. I finally got back to London at 11 a.m. the next morning, having barely slept in 32 hours. I went straight to class.

I actually bled for TFC on that trip. While we were marching to the Big O with all the other away fans, I took a pretty painful firecracker to the armpit. It made an impressive mark; I still have a scar under my left arm and a hole in my jersey. That’s my war wound.

I probably took this video a few seconds before. See how you can lose yourself in an experience like that?

Anyway, the two legs of that series with the Impact would probably rank as two of the best days of my life. A week later, tearfully hugging the fans next to me in 112 after Tosaint Ricketts’s extra-time goal, I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier. I could barely talk for three days after all the shouting.

I won’t talk about the final. Let’s not relive that.

TFC have been a part of my life for as long as they’ve existed. The club assumed a new meaning for me in the past few years, though. Since I lost my dad, the Reds have been my distraction of choice.

Here’s to many more years of escapism.