Friday night served up everything you could want from a football game (unless you’re a New York City FC fan, of course). Toronto FC’s 4-0 win over Domènec Torrent’s side was the first game I’ve attended at BMO Field since moving to Toronto from Ireland in January, and it won’t be the last. The matchday experience and the quality on the pitch surpassed all expectations.
I’ve attended football matches in Ireland as a sports writer with my neutral hat on, also as a totally biased Shelbourne FC fanatic. My love of the game itself and of the fan culture that surrounds it has taken me to some of Europe’s great stadiums and to some great little grounds off the beaten track. So, I thought it might be a fun exercise to compare the TFC matchday experience with what I’m more used to.
There are some European football supporters who view the MLS fan scene with contempt — not an opinion I share, for the record, but I have met those who dismiss North American soccer culture as contrived and cringeworthy. While there ideally should be no place for snobbery in football, viral videos like the ‘Fight and Win’ Seattle Sounders YouTube clip have done nothing to combat that negative stereotype.
Let’s get this straight from the outset: There is absolutely nothing contrived about the atmosphere at BMO. It feels how football should feel.
As you approach the stadium and sample the atmosphere at some of the bars near the ground, the first thing that strikes you is the colour. There was a nice contrast around the town on Friday evening, with blue-clad Blue Jays fans heading for the Rogers Centre and TFC supporters, decked out in red, making their way to BMO. I’ve always preferred the atmosphere at night games and Friday was no different. Following the floodlights on the walk to the stadium before a big game is a magical feeling.
That pre-game excitement and anxiety in the pit of your stomach is a feeling shared by football followers across the globe — and there’s always that added buzz in the air when night falls and the lights are on.
The problem with some sporting events, for me, is that fans can often be made feel like consumers on a shopping trip. Buy the merchandise, buy the beverages. Buy, buy, and buy some more. Football is big business and I’m not against clubs maximizing their profits, but sometimes commercialization can take away the authentic football feel. BMO has all the bells and whistles, but crucially it’s not intrusive — although the price of a beer is a bit crazy!
You feel like you’re at a football game and not a corporate show. The ultras behind the goal do a great job creating a strong atmosphere for 90 minutes and when the rest of the stadium joins them in song, the noise that reverberates around the stands makes this an intimidating venue for away teams. I’ve always been struck by the impressive atmosphere at BMO when watching TFC games on TV back in Ireland (fun late-night viewing for those with a Sky Sports subscription) and the reality does not disappoint.
TFC supporters seem keen to enjoy the occasion, to be entertained and to maybe enjoy an overpriced beverage or two. But they are more focused on the play and on contributing to an atmosphere that drives their team on. Credit should go to the club and to the supporters for striking that balance.
The lack of away fans at Friday’s game was one drawback. The back-and-forth banter between sets of supporters is something I love (probably a bit too much at times). There was not much of that on display as only a handful of NYCFC followers made the trip. Following your team on enemy territory always makes for a great day out and it’s just a pity that travelling away every week isn’t really feasible for MLS fans.
As for the football itself? Alejandro Pozuelo, take a bow. A Panenka penalty and beautifully weighted lob to cap off a well-deserved brace. What a way to make your debut. The classy finishes were the icing on the cake for the Spaniard in a display that oozed class. The ex-Genk star looked a cut above, with his close control, ability to pick out a pass and clever runs causing chaos for the visiting defenders.
Sebastian Giovinco is one of those rare talents who is virtually impossible to replace. The Italian is a one-of-a-kind player and those who had the joy of watching him in the flesh every week don’t need me to tell them that. However, Pozuelo has that comfortability on the ball that Giovinco is famous for. One thing all great footballers have in common? They always look like they have more time on the ball than others. Pozuelo clearly isn’t blessed with blistering pace. He compensates for that with his technical skill and ability to read the game. I can’t wait to see what the season has in store for him and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Pozuelo took most of the plaudits but Michael Bradley was outstanding with and without the ball at the heart of the midfield. In Justin Morrow and Auro, Greg Vanney has two potent attacking weapons in the full-back slots. The position has become so key in modern football, with players like Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and Real Madrid ace Marcelo springing to mind. It’s not a rare sight anymore to see full-backs popping up in the opposition box. Morrow has obviously been there and done that with TFC. Auro, at 23 years of age, has a seriously bright future ahead of him with that Brazilian attacking instinct.
Jozy Altidore got the goal his all-round performance deserved. Altidore is always mocked by Premier League fans for his calamitous spell with Sunderland. Those in Europe who keep up to date with MLS know that the American is a constant threat. Jozy is a physical presence, a strong hold-up player and of course a solid finisher. The striker’s two outstanding seasons with AZ Alkmaar earlier in his career are too easily disregarded by his doubters.
So, overall first impressions? Quality football, a lively atmosphere, and a Spanish superstar in the making.
I might just have to make this TFC thing a habit.