Toronto FC dropped its second game of the MLS season 1-0 to arch nemeses Montreal Impact on Saturday, in a match played in front of approximately 25,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium. It’s the Impact’s secondary home when weather conditions don’t allow for outdoor football. TFC know it well, having had some memorable matches there, including the first leg of the fateful 2016 Eastern Conference semi-final, where the only thing less assured than Montreal’s three-goal lead was the stadium grounds crew being responsible for laying down the lines.
I was there Saturday — while there is some nostalgic charm, on the whole, it’s a stark and ugly place for sports. The biggest crime, however, is not the building itself, but the “pitch” on which the match was played. It was so visibly horrible, the game could have been played on a parking lot without any major difference in quality. Tosaint Ricketts offered a concise yet salient analysis of the Big O, commenting to reporters “that place is garbage.” Making matters more frustrating, Saputo Stadium, Montreal’s beautiful, soccer-specific stadium, sat empty a mere few hundred meters away.
Let me be clear: this piece is not meant to excuse the result. Both teams had to play on the same pitch — Montreal took their chance, and we didn’t. I’m also not blaming the Impact; they don’t set the schedule, and as such didn’t have a choice in the matter. Five minutes outside in a winter jacket this past weekend in Montreal had me frozen to the core. It was a soul-crushing cold, and no player or fan would even want to have entertained playing outside. My frustration and bafflement is reserved for one party: MLS.
Why in the world would MLS schedule one of Toronto’s two visits to Montreal (the second being in October, also not a particularly warm time of year) in March? Why make the Impact move it indoors, and onto the world’s largest area rug? Why take the league’s arguably best, most organic rivalry, and automatically diminish it by putting inside a soulless concrete dump, on a surface not conducive to quality, free-flowing football?
I don’t have a definitive answer. Maybe the league was trying to score an early TV ratings victory? If so, having sub-par, bounce-ball football being played against the dreary backdrop of an arena more befitting of East Berlin than Montreal, in front of a subdued crowd (again, I blame the stadium for this), can’t translate well on TV.
Obviously, some football will have to be played at Olympic Stadium - that’s just the reality of having a football team based in a northern climate like Montreal. What I am saying is those matches should never be against Toronto. Admittedly, the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final was indeed at Olympic Stadium, and it was an excellent, loud and exciting match. But playoff matches, for obvious reasons, are different, and between increased demand for tickets and the first leg being played at the end of November, the game was rightfully moved to Olympic Stadium.
At any rate, I’m just speculating. Who knows why the league set its schedule the way they did, though it does seem to follow the league’s pattern of seeming indifference toward its Canadian franchises, and the sport in this country in general. An important part of what sparks interest and growth in a sport are rivalries. They create memories and emotions that permanently etch themselves in fans. It drives passion, interest and inspires new generations to be involved, as supporters and players, in the sport. And from a business perspective, seemingly MLS’ primary lens, it makes for a better, more entertaining product.
A perfect example? The 2016 MLS Eastern Conference Final. Forgetting, just for a moment, what it did for the folklore of an already loaded rivalry, the cold hard metrics of the fixture speak for themselves — almost 90,000 in attendance over two legs, and a TV audience of approximately 2.4 million.
Rivalries are not just good for growing a sport, they’re also good for the bottom line. While MLS may not care about the former, we know it certainly cares about the latter. With this in mind, I implore MLS to avoid boneheaded, easily avoidable decisions like diluting one of the league’s top fixtures by moving it indoors. We know how capable this fixture is of producing highly entertaining football. So can we stop with unnecessary matches at Olympic Stadium? It’s disrespectful to the players, clubs and, most importantly, to the people who buy the tickets, watch on TV and create the atmosphere: the fans.