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Eighteen months ahead of Toronto FC's 2007 debut, then Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie was asked to peg what he'd consider a successful soccer crowd.

Peddie guesstimated "low teens" at the 20,000-seat BMO Field.

"[On] a consistent basis, I think they can draw six to eight thousand," Bruno Hartrell said at the time. As owner of his own Toronto club – the Lynx – Hartrell was the local expert on the business of soccer.

They were reasonable guesses, maybe even optimistic. Most MLS teams played in three-quarter-empty football stadiums. The crowds were somnambulant. At best, it was minor league. In some cases, it was little league.

It was parents taking their kids to watch the pros because soccer is cheap and it's good for you – like porridge or push-ups.

Toronto FC showed up, sold out and never really stopped. The supporters made noise. They cared. The league had its cultists in the States, but BMO Field was the first stadium in which everyone was up for it.

Whenever anybody laughed at the team or the sport, the fan base went bonkers.

Not so long ago, the North American media landscape was peppered with people who'd proudly tell you they didn't get soccer, or that it was a flouncing sport played by foreign cowards and cheats. Those people are gone. Soccer converted some of them, and shut the rest up.

In American hagiography, David Beckham is responsible for that. Doubtless, he played a big part.

But the truth is Toronto turned soccer around in North America and – along with the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – continues to lead the way.

When Americans are congratulating themselves on how well they've embraced the sport over the past decade, they ought to face north. Canada taught them how.

From the off, MLS commissioner Don Garber couldn't believe his luck. He'd inherited most of his franchises. He planted teams in Houston and Salt Lake City, back when the league's marketing strategy was, 'Latinos love soccer. Go where Latinos are.' Like most pandering efforts, it had limited success.

Toronto was a flyer – a city in which you might have to shovel the field at the beginning and end of the season.

Any weakness was overcome by a series of good decisions – build a stadium straight away; put it downtown; sell the club on the basis of the fan experience, rather than the on-field product. Leave ethnicity out of it. Make it cheap, because people who save money at soccer games tend to spend it on beer and gear.

The team was awful, but the league couldn't believe how lucky it was.

Garber was in Toronto constantly. It was a little like Khrushchev showing up at Stalingrad – he knew where the war was being won.

After TFC had become emblematically dysfunctional on the field, Garber's enthusiasm morphed into eulogy.

"MLS is where it is today because of the success of Toronto FC," Garber said in 2010. "I have absolutely no doubt that we would not be in the position we are, which is a respected and credible, growing professional sports league … without the success of TFC."

This is like praising the Washington Generals for making basketball a success.

In coming years, TFC's primacy was either matched or overcome, but by new franchises made in its image. This included teams in Montreal and Vancouver – long-standing clubs whose tradition was folded seamlessly into MLS.

You could argue that MLS's current flagship franchise is Seattle. It's far and away the best attended team, averaging nearly 40,000 at a game. It has that European feel. Unlike Toronto, it occasionally makes the playoffs – which helps.

You could argue it's the L.A. Galaxy. It has won three of the past four titles. The team brings the most overseas heat. It's a big crowd, if a relatively quiet one.

You could argue both those things. Toronto FC captain and Team USA poster boy Michael Bradley wouldn't.

"This is the only team in Major League Soccer that gets booed off the field at half-time if we're losing," Bradley said recently.

He meant that as a good thing.

"Seattle, for all their fans? No. It doesn't happen there. The Galaxy? No," Bradley said. "It speaks volumes for the fans … In a lot of ways, what drew me here and what keeps me here, motivated and determined, is that I see in the city what I want, and they see in me what they want."

For Bradley, Canada's the happy medium between America and Europe.

In his first year at Roma, the team lost to intra-city rival Lazio in a Cup final.

"That is not allowed," Bradley explained. Roma's own fans barricaded the team into its training ground for an entire day. Bradley happily described this forced imprisonment as "a little bit overboard."

In Toronto, people know him to see him. They want to talk to him.

"They're extremely respectful and very polite, but it's not like I can walk around here and do whatever I want and think nobody recognizes me … I know the guys who play for the Galaxy. When they go home at the end of the day to Manhattan Beach or Hermosa Beach, these guys go to dinner and walk around in relative anonymity. For sure."

Bradley – soccer's Captain America – says it with a bit of a sneer. Shouldn't someone in the Canadian national set-up give him a call? You know, just in case he has any questions, or wants to know how defecting works?

Canadian teams have this way of getting into the heads of their players – and not the Canadian ones. The most famous break-up in recent MLS history was between Toronto FC and Dwayne De Rosario of Scarborough, Ont., since healed.

It's the foreigners who love it here. They like America for the weather. They like Canada for the soccer culture.

The longest serving of them is Vancouver Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson. The Welshman was an original member of TFC, one of the first guys to come to MLS when he still had options in Europe. Like most of those Euros who turn into productive MLS pros, he was drawn by an adventuresome spirit, rather than money.

Robinson and his English teammate, Danny Dichio, grabbed hold of Canada. Dichio became a citizen. Robinson has applied for permanent residency.

For that sort of player, Canada isn't part of MLS. It's fundamental to it.

"It absolutely is," Robinson agreed, when the idea was put to him. "Ten minutes after Montreal Impact beat Pachuca the other day, I was texting [Impact manager] Frankie Klopas. They're a rival of ours, but that's so important for Canadian soccer. And for MLS."

The order of those thoughts is notable. The result Robinson is referring to has just put Montreal into the semi-finals of the continental champions league. No MLS team has ever won the competition. Until it does, the league cannot really be taken seriously.

It would be a nice place for Montreal to plant our flag. But that's just one small step.

What makes Canada's impact on MLS so remarkable is how influential these teams have been despite the weakness of our national program.

In America, the national team drives interest in the game, and the league.

Recently, MLS acknowledged Team USA's primacy by going to great lengths to bring its biggest stars home with exorbitant pay packets – Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, et al.

That policy set off an embarrassing row with America's German-born coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. He'd prefer the best American players play in the world's best leagues (i.e. Europe). In essence, Garber has told him to mind his own business.

There are plenty of Canadians in MLS, but few people recognize their names. There is no World Cup participation to goose interest. More Canadians know and love the women's national team, and for good reason – it wins.

At the outset, MLS was sold in Canada as a vehicle by which to grow the national game. We still talk about it in those terms. The possibility that that might still work is the undiscovered treasure buried in Canada's MLS success story.

Let's face it – United States has maxed out. It has been to a World Cup quarter-final. It is never going to win a championship. It has bled the international game for all it can give it.

"It hurts me when I see America playing in the World Cup," Robinson said. "People say, 'Why does that hurt you? You're Welsh.' Well, I'm part of Canada now."

If Canada ever manages to make a World Cup again, it will vault several teams onto another level. It services a series of rivalries, including the delicious prospect of Canada vs. USA in both the men's and women's game.

This leaves the league with a fascinating, and profitable, conundrum.

It was created in order to turn Americans into soccer fans. America couldn't figure out how that worked until Canada showed them.

It's now being retooled to service America's growing taste for the game. But its best hope for an overnight boost is through Canadian international success.

You just hope the league sees that potential. Garber and his lieutenants have always been generous with the praise they've pointed north. Why wouldn't they be? They came up with the idea.

The trick is doubling down on the idea that while Major League Soccer was built in America, the engine was provided by Canada.