Big party. Familiar hangover.
Really, at some point you’d like to see Toronto FC get results to match the level of its fan support. And for the better part of 90 minutes Wednesday night it seemed as if that occasion may have finally arrived: a 2-1 lead against the defending Major League Soccer champions L.A. Galaxy, 47,658 at the Rogers Centre all jumping and flag waving and streamer tossing.
Enter David Beckham. All night, he’d challenged the home side with corner kicks and set-pieces, patiently tut-tutting as he cleared away the red and white streamers that rained down on him in the corner. This time, however, Beckham saw something shiny go by him. He picked it up: a beer-can, showing it to the linesman and gesturing angrily to security personnel as boos rained down. Beckham finally whipped in his corner, the ball bounced here and squirted there and Landon Donovan flicked it past Stefan Frei and just like that the old bugaboo was back: boisterous fan support is part of Toronto FC’s DNA but so too is the late-game choke. Beckham turned and gestured at the fans in the corner and the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals finished 2-2.
Say this for the Reds: For much of Wednesday night, they played up to the level of their supporters as they have seldom done. They answered the calls of the Red Patch Boys and U Sector and whoever festooned the baseball pressbox end of the Rogers Centre with all those wonderfully huge posters, the ‘Support Local Football’ and ‘Home Or Away We Are With You’ and ‘Our Stadiums, Our Rules,’ folks. This was not Lionel Messi or Nicosia Apoel Champions League stuff, but it was widely heralded as the most significant match in TFC history.
“Tonight was a great atmosphere,” Beckham told Sportsnet as the players filed off the pitch. “The majority were here to enjoy the spectacle. It’s a shame some people spoiled it. It’s disappointing kids see it … but it was a great atmosphere.”
Not only was Toronto FC playing against the champions and Beckham. Two of the Galaxy’s key players, Donovan and Robbie Keane, were in form after winter loans to Premiership sides Everton and Aston Villa. “Play with them? We are competitive with them,” Toronto FC striker Danny Koevermans said later, rankling slightly when asked if the closeness of the score provided a silver lining. It’s not like we’re out of the tournament yet.”
The return leg is next Wednesday in southern California, with the winner advancing to face the winner of the Seattle Sounders and Santos Laguna of Mexico. The crowd at Home Depot Centre will be restricted to a maximum of 7,500, since attendance at weeknight games at the facility – which is located at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif. – is capped on school-nights due to parking concerns. Koevermans will play with a yellow card, after a shoving match with L.A. goalkeeper Josh Saunders. Koevermans claimed Saunders dug his cleats into him, and was miffed only he received a yellow card, pronouncing CONCACAF officiating as “a joke.”
The game turned into somewhat of a mean-spirited affair even before the beer can was thrown at Beckham – an incident that Galaxy officials said later would be brought to CONCACAF’s attention.
Toronto FC head coach Aron Winter put his two steady veteran hands, 35-year-old captain and German national team stalwart Torsten Frings and 28-year-old Chilean veteran Miguel Aceval at the back alongside five-year MLS veteran Ty Harden. Frings was a presence throughout the match, sending in the corner kick that Ryan Johnson drilled into the top of the netting for Toronto FC’s first goal in the 12th minute and picking out rookie Luis Silva with a long pass that was headed past Josh Saunders six minutes later. Beckham said the Galaxy were “shell-shocked.”
“I think everybody enjoyed the atmosphere,” Koevermans said. “How can you not like playing in front of 40,000 people? If you ask me we should make BMO bigger – or, move here.”
Strange event, this. A Champions League game played not in the middle or near the end of a regular season schedule but before it has even started; played not at BMO Field but at the Rogers Centre – and on artificial turf, at that. Toronto FC was without suspended players Julian de Guzman and Nick Soolsma but it was very much with Silva, the fourth pick overall in the MLS Draft. Silva’s reputation is as a player who does not panic with the ball at his feet – which would make him a historical rarity for Toronto FC – and he showed flashes of being the real deal. But despite the noise and rowdiness and the good intentions, the guess is many of the fans who left the Rogers Centre had that same old, uncomfortable feeling. Shell-shocked would be the word for them, too.