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A Toronto FC fans celebrates his team's victory over Real Salt Lake during their Major League Soccer game in Toronto Saturday, April 19, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/J.P. Moczulski (J.P. Moczulski)
A Toronto FC fans celebrates his team's victory over Real Salt Lake during their Major League Soccer game in Toronto Saturday, April 19, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/J.P. Moczulski (J.P. Moczulski)

Stephen Brunt

At long last Canada finds its soccer culture Add to ...

In Toronto, the faithful must have looked on with sad, sweet memories, knowing exactly how it felt.

Vancouver's new entry in Major League Soccer debuted last weekend, and though the Whitecaps weren't created out of thin air, though the West Coast's history of professional soccer has been far less spotty than at the Centre of the Universe, it all seemed new and fresh and fantastic.

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And it didn't hurt that the home team played rings around a Toronto FC side that is, to be charitable, a work in progress.

Saturday, it is TFC's turn to make its 2011 home debut against the expansion Portland Timbers, and if watching the Whitecaps stirred memories of that glorious day when Danny Dichio scored the first goal in TFC's franchise history, inspiring a song and a shower of seat cushions, the air of discontent Saturday afternoon in Toronto will stand in stark contrast to the unfettered joy at Empire Field.

Seeing a team entering its fifth year with zero postseason appearances to its credit and apparently all the way back at square one would do that to even the most loyal supporter base. Last season ended grumpily, with the silent protest over ticket-price increases and a growing realization that the entire Mo Johnston era had been one long con job, and this season figures to begin on at best a highly skeptical note.

Hiring Jurgen Klinsmann as a consultant to rebuild the franchise - and then Klinsmann in turn selecting Aron Winter to run the team - inspired some confidence over the winter, but it is going to be a long road, with the question of how a guy used to operating inside the Ajax academy system will fare in the idiosyncratic world of North American professional soccer still to be answered.

All of which means there will be some empty seats this year at BMO Field, a stadium that famously has been sold out or close to it since Day 1.

Which in turns means that at some point this season, someone will pipe up and take that as proof that "we" just don't "get" soccer, that anyone who believes otherwise is delusional, unaware of what happened to the old North American Soccer League, etc, etc.

It's an old argument and an out-of-touch argument, and a strangely defensive argument - as though soccer, with its massive participation base, is a threat to displace something central to our traditional sense of identity. (Surely not hockey... .) The notion that it might just kind of co-exist, find its niche and its audience, and putter along with some successes and some failures like any other game you can name is apparently too subtle and grey to be a sports-radio talking point.

Where the game stands in North America right now is perhaps not where the MLS founders imagined it would be when they launched the league on the heels of the hugely successful 1994 World Cup in the United States. There has been no great league-wide breakthrough, especially when it comes to television, and though the arrival of David Beckham was worth every nickel in terms of the publicity generated, his star power (during the limited amount of time he has actually been on the pitch for the L.A. Galaxy) hasn't been transformative, even in the way that arrival of Pele et al was with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s.

But the continuing construction of small, soccer-specific stadiums, and the success of new teams has made it pretty clear just what MLS is, and just what MLS ought to be.

Soccer is different than every other spectator sport in North America in that its best players aren't here. Anyone watching hockey on this continent, or baseball or basketball or football, understands that they are watching the top talent on the planet. (Even the Canadian Football League, it could be argued given its distinct rules, offers the top version of the sport's three-down variant.) In soccer, the best are elsewhere - in the Premiership, and Serie A, and La Liga, and the Bundesliga, and in South America - and that doesn't figure to change with the exception of a few players who, like Beckham or Thierry Henry, opt for a spell in North America at the tail end of their careers.

What's different now than during the NASL heyday - and it's a crucial difference - is the fact that those games from afar, plus the Champions League, and the European Championships, and the World Cup, are readily and easily available to North American television viewers. Soccer literacy here has never been higher, and it is no longer limited to the cliquish, Old World-connected crowd, who certainly didn't serve the sport's larger interests for decades by acting as gatekeepers.

North Americans soccer fans watch European leagues the way European hockey or basketball fans watch the NHL and the NBA. What MLS provides is the opportunity for a live experience, to go out and wear the colours and sing the songs and see the best available local version of the game. In soccer-first countries, it wouldn't be so different among those who support local second- or third-division sides - in similar-sized stadiums - while also carrying a torch for Manchester United or Real Madrid or AC Milan. In other words, it's a continuum.

No one is fooling themselves, pretending that MLS is more than that. The fans who are currently overjoyed in Vancouver, and rather unhappy in Toronto, know exactly what they are getting, because they know the sport.

Forget the perpetual referendum. It's here. It's happened. And if you don't "get" it, fair enough, don't bother, and especially don't worry that your world is changing. There's plenty of room for all.

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