TORONTO – David Beckham could have been forgiven for thinking he was back in the United Kingdom on Sunday night.
Sure, it was hot and humid and everyone spoke differently, but the newest franchise in Major League Soccer – Toronto FC – could have been lifted straight from England.
There were raucous and knowledgeable supporters and there wasn't a spare seat in the stands – all thanks to an inspired marketing strategy that does not try to dumb down its product but celebrates its uniqueness compared to more traditional North American sports.
Just like a game in the English Premiership or Championship, there was constant chanting and singing, some of it hostile towards the Los Angeles Galaxy but all of it imaginative, entertaining and passionate nonetheless.
Since joining MLS as its lone Canadian team, Toronto FC has done everything right and now stands as a blueprint for future expansionist ventures, starting with San Jose in 2008.
If every team in the league adopts a similar approach to that taken by owners Maple Leaf Sports, then American soccer could move forward quicker than anyone imagines. In the city of Toronto, soccer is trendy. The BMO Field is a fashionable place to see and be seen, whether a global heartthrob is in town or not.
Local sports lawyer Gord Kirke believes that in Canada, soccer now has "sex appeal."
"The demographic has changed," Kirke said. "There are a lot more women at games and you have people who both like the sport and like the atmosphere and the trendiness that comes with it."
Every Toronto FC game is selling out well ahead of time and there is already a hardcore posse of the loudest and most fervent fans who congregate under the banner of "The Red Patch Boys."
"Toronto FC has done everything perfectly so far," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "Their example is what other new teams will look to now."
Hopefully now, the league itself will spread the message. No one is suggesting that the English Premier League is a flawless product, but it has had years to iron out the major faults and has many lessons to offer. Despite complaints that it is top-heavy and overly predictable, the Premiership is watched in virtually every soccer-viewing country on the planet.
The MLS does not need to Americanize the most popular sport in the world. It should do away with the contrived conference system and change to an all-in league with 14 teams for next year.
There have been mutterings that the U.S. public may not "get" a league that is not hacked up into various conferences, divisions and pools. Come on, how hard it is to understand the concept of every team in the league playing each other once at home and once on the road?
The powers that be at the MLS are doing many things right and are riding the crest of a wave with the Beckham show having pitched up in Tinseltown.
The publicity value of having Becks chat with the New York Yankees, like he did at the SkyDome on Monday with pictures of the meeting beamed around the globe, is immeasurable.
On the soccer side, the ludicrous shootouts to decide drawn games a few years ago have thankfully been ditched, but MLS still has some challenges ahead. A playoff system that sees eight out of 13 teams qualify for the postseason may keep interest alive for some clubs later in the season, but that number should really be trimmed down.
Remember, in virtually every other soccer league in the world, there is no playoff system at all but a simple process that sees the side at the top of the standings crowned as champion. The MLS playoffs are exciting and have merit, but they would benefit from being whittled down to four or maybe six teams.
The MLS does not need to model itself on the sports it is trying to gain a foothold alongside. Baseball, basketball and football have all had their share of scandals, so to be different just now is not to be inferior. It is to be fresh, innovative and affordable.
Paving the way for the deal to secure David Beckham took courage, foresight and conviction. Now the MLS must be brave enough to block out the barbs aimed by doom-mongering traditionalists and continue to carve its own path towards parity.
- Toronto FC
- Major League Soccer