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TFC’s Jermaine Defoe
TFC’s Jermaine Defoe

MLS

First game of new season gives hope to long-suffering TFC supporters Add to ...

“But I think last year, we learned a lot from top to bottom of how the club is meant to be run, but we had a vision and we had a plan and we stuck to it no matter what was kind of thrown at us. And, obviously, we put ourselves in a position to bring in the kind of characters we’ve brought in, but in saying that, it makes it just as hard.”

But as far more experienced managers and coaches will tell you, dealing with the high expectations that come from assembling a talented group of players is a far more preferable situation to be in than the other side of the equation.

Steve Nicol, a Scottish international who won just about everything during a 13-year playing career with Liverpool in the 1980s and ’90s, has seen it from both sides. Like Nelsen, Nicol moved straight from the pitch to the manager’s hot seat and was unable to save Notts County from relegation in the mid-1990s, before eventually coaching against TFC during a nine-year spell in charge of the New England Revolution, a club he took to four MLS Cup appearances.

“The reason they’ve been bad is because they haven’t had good players,” he says of TFC from Bristol, Conn., where he is now an analyst for ESPN. “It really is about the players. If you have good players with good attitudes, then you’ll win games.”

Based on the team’s first win in Seattle, and just the second victory in a MLS season-opener, the current cast looks talented enough to finally make the playoffs. But then many Toronto Blue Jays fans, and so-called experts, had the Major League Baseball squad pegged to do the same thing a year ago, with online book maker Bodog installing Toronto as the 15-to-2 favourite for a first World Series title in 20 years.

Nobody needs reminding how that turned out, but for the record, Bodog currently has Toronto FC installed as the 9-to-1, sixth-favourite to win the 2014 MLS Cup.

Like the Blue Jays though, increased expectations are leading to increased activity at the box office.

Toronto FC season ticket sales – which are capped out at 17,000 this season – rocketed from around 15 per cent before the announcement of Defoe and Bradley to 92 per cent of the maximum within mere days of the big unveiling at Real Sports Bar and Grill in Toronto.

According to online ticket reseller StubHub, ticket sales for Saturday’s game have more than doubled from last year’s home opener, with a 150-per-cent increase since last Saturday’s season opener. (By way of contrast, the Blue Jays, who set sales records through the website for their home opener last year, have only managed sales of 35 per cent of last year’s total for their own opener, on April 4 against the New York Yankees.)

Those increased sales fold neatly into MLSE’s $120-million plan to increase the capacity of BMO Field, adding another 10,000 seats for TFC games along with a roof and the ability to expand the stadium to incorporate the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and potentially play host to big events such as an NHL Winter Classic or a Grey Cup. (After gaining the approval of the executive committee earlier this week, that plan will go before Toronto city council next month for final approval.)

It’s all part of the grand vision by MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke, who helped set up a partnership with Tottenham through the Defoe transfer.

“This is almost a launching point for the brand to become bigger. Because MLSE has aspirations for the Toronto FC brand to be a global brand, not just a brand in Canada or in North America,” say Vijay Setlur, a sports-marketing instructor at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“So this is all laying the foundation for growing the franchise as an international brand, all these elements, from star players to the expansion of the stadium and just the overall heightened media coverage and profile that the team is getting.”

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