This past spring we ventured to Spain for a 10-day tour with one of our local boys teams aged U16. They were a relatively successful local team, making it to the A-Cup Provincials two years in a row, all the while training twice each week as a team for 6-7 months of the year and playing a game each weekend (the season is generally 20 games long plus another 10 games for the run to the provincials). All in all a relatively committed group of players who would also do extra training in an academy type setting and then of course play school soccer. The trip to Spain was timely as we came across a highly competitive event which featured the top U18 youth teams from across Europe plus a few guest teams from other parts. The pleasure on watching these top youth team play in 60 minute games, was that we came to realize
A. Spanish Football will remain strong for a very, very, very long time
B. We in Canada are at best 100 years behind!
The feeling was overwhelming after watching 5-6 games daily when you observed the individual skill/technique, overall team tactics and shape, as well as the speed at which the players executed technique. We were in awe! How these 16-17 year old players were developing was beyond any of the local calibre we had seen in recent years. In fact, the following summer I recall sitting at a Whitecaps game with about 100 of our kids from the local community and thinking to myself that there was something missing. It took me a few moments, however, I came to realize the impression the youth tournament had on me from our trip to Spain compromised my view and/or experience watching the MLS.
Fast forward to the MLS Play-Off Semi-Final played in Montreal at the Big O between the Impact and TFC. I honestly feel the ground shake beneath my feet as the game in our country leaped forward by 20-years. I tuned into the game from a stormy live feed on Denman Island. I recalled times gone by when used to kill time at the cabin during the winter months listening to the NHL on the radio, in fact, listening to Montreal play Toronto live (crica 1980's). It got me too thinking how far we have come. The build up to the game, the hype leaving one of these two teams to play in the MLS Cup Final. The simple fact that 61,000 + packed the stadium to watch the game live and more than 1,000,000 tuned in live. Now we are moving forwards. Sure, there can be arguments made that the league favors US born players even with the Canadian Franchises. Sure, the argument can be made there were few Canadians playing for the Canadian Teams. However, the simple fact that we are hosting two top teams in the most competitive league available with country wide awareness moves me.
On an personal note, I have enjoyed many professional soccer experiences in Montreal through the decades. My first trip to Montreal for soccer would have been to play in the Canadian Soccer League circa 1986 for the Victoria Vistas against the Montreal Impact. I had several amazing experiences with the Canadian Women's National Team in training camps and playing International Friendlies in Montreal (we beat Brazil in the final game before the 2003 Women's World Cup here). I have always been awestruck by the passion for the game and the commitment the Montreal Impact ownership has made to professional soccer in the city. I have also been a part of the coaching staff for an MLS Game in the Big O back in 2012 when TFC played the Impact during the start of the season and then again in the new stadium designed specifically for soccer beside the Big O.
The 2016 MLS Semi-Final First Leg brought me closer to friends all over North America, as we all follow the teams we support in Montreal, Toronto and Seattle.
The game got off to a great start (if you are an Impact fan). Patrice Bernier made an excellent pass to set-up the first goal for the Impact. Then suddenly we were down 2-0 and eventually 3-0. I felt like digging a really BIG hole as a TFC fan and hiding in it. But then something wacky happened. We scored to make it 3-1. The 3-2 (with away goals counting for double in the aggregate). Now we are back to Toronto for the second leg in which both teams have a fighting chance to make the final. Which brings me back to how exciting it is to see soccer on the map and people all across Canada tuning in. There are some brilliant players playing for both teams from all over the world.
I have always felt that when people ask you why we are so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to discussing soccer in Canada, I have always said "time." The most successful countries in the world have been playing the game for up to and beyond 100 years and have tremendous history in the game of soccer (take a tour through the stadium in Barcelona to observe some of the history of this remarkable club). I sincerely feel that we took one giant step forward last night embracing the MLS Semi-Final which was played between Montreal Impact and Toronto FC. I look forward to the second leg and also find myself pulling for Seattle (who is on the other side of the draw). This is the second year in a row they have made the conference semi-final if I am not mistaken, losing out last year to the LA Galaxy.
Importantly, there is always a reference to hockey when it comes to discussing professional sport in Canada. I grew up a soccer player. I played many other sports in my youth, but hockey was not one of them. I have always been aware of the passion for the game in our country. However, I find it fascinating that the age old rivalries between Victoria and Portland, Portland and Seattle, Vancouver and Portland all have some resemblance of hockey roots (WHL) in the same fashion I grew-up listening to games with rivalries from the NHL we now face with the MLS. The winds of change are upon us and I certainly look forward to seeing more progress!