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The Globe and Mail

World Cup excitement spills over to BMO Field

With another World Cup in the books, Rob and Doug Ford did what another 22,000-plus Torontonian "football" fans did Wednesday night to stave off the withdrawal symptoms – they headed over to BMO Field to watch Toronto FC play host to the Vancouver Whitecaps.

With the Toronto mayor's re-election campaign now in full swing – both Fords are avowed fans of the throw-and-catch version of football – they were there to press flesh rather than bleed hometown red as TFC fought back to earn a 1-1 draw. But the ambiguity of the occasional "Dumb and Dumber" catcalls must have been enjoyable – although it seems unfair to tar TFC's centre-back partnership with that brush given this season's defensive improvement.

The non-celebrities in the crowd were still full of World Cup fever, though. Taking in just his second Major League Soccer game, London, Ont., native Jeffrey Stinchcombe, 47, wore his German national team shirt – resplendent with the No. 13 of star forward Thomas Mueller – with pride. Having been over to Germany for some of the tournament – his wife is German – Mr. Stinchcombe witnessed the newly crowned world champions forge their way to glory, and it's those kinds of fans that MLS needs to embrace now that Brazil is all but a memory.

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"This is a unique opportunity right now," Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said. "Frankly, I think it took some people by surprise, how successful the World Cup has been, in the U.S. in particular. I think in Canada we knew that it was a popular event, especially in Toronto. From the moment I came here people would tell me, 'Just wait for the World Cup because this city will come alive' and it sure has and that's been fun to see.

"But I think it is a moment for MLS to grab onto and run with and that's showing people that we have the quality of play right now in our league and not in 10 years."

With 22 MLS players representing various countries in Brazil, and with Spain's David Villa and England's Frank Lampard joining MLS when expansion side New York City FC takes the field at Yankee Stadium next year – alongside reports that Spanish and Barcelona linchpin Xavi Hernandez may soon opt to join them – that quality is only set to rise.

Canadian World Cup broadcaster CBC certainly raked in the ratings from one of the most exciting World Cups in recent times. While the average viewership among the 64 games was a respectable 1.7 million, the final attracted an average of 4.93 million, a Canadian record and greater than last year's Grey Cup, the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day and every Stanley Cup playoff game.

TFC's biggest draw this season on national Major League Soccer broadcaster TSN was 352,000 for the home-opener against D.C. United, and the viewing figures have fallen off precipitously since then, but the eight-year deal announced in May to air MLS games on ESPN and Fox in the U.S. – to the tune of a reported $90-million (U.S.) a year – shows how seriously the MLS product is now being taken on this side of the pond. The additions of New York City FC, Orlando and David Beckham's Miami franchise in the coming years will only add to that, with Atlanta recently being welcomed in as the league's 22nd franchise and set to begin play in 2017.

"Soccer is one of the key pillars of our programming strategy, and the World Cup was a prime example of the growing passion of Canadian soccer fans," said TSN president Stewart Johnston in an e-mail. "In recent years, we've substantially expanded our MLS and Premier League coverage, and we're optimistic that the additions of stars like [Toronto's] Jermain Defoe and [Vancouver's] Pedro Morales will translate into MLS reaching even greater heights."

Some fans, perhaps wisely, are taking the wait-and-see approach to whether MLS can capitalize on the enthusiastic support for a global occasion such as the World Cup. TFC season-ticket holder Dieter Boeheim – who was born in Munich and proudly sporting a T-shirt representing the four-time world champions – says MLS offers a good product but compared with the World Cup, it's apples and oranges.

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"The World Cup is an event once every four years," the 52-year-old said. "It brings the world together, it's got magic to it, whereas MLS I think is great entertainment. It's up and coming, but I think we've got to be careful in making comparisons because quite frankly even top European leagues don't compare with the World Cup."

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