As the cool kids would say, the pre-match festivities were “lit” — and not just because red flares lit up the dark Toronto sky. Most of the fans were congregating before the match well before it got dark. Many were at watering holes in Liberty Village dressed in red watching Premier League matches that morning. By 3 p.m. it was a sea of supporters. By 5:30 P.M. the singing and dancing and chanting had begun. All this for an 8 p.m. game, but when you’ve waited 10 years you want to get the party started as soon as possible. I’d guess there were up to 4,000 people out in the street, although it was tough to tell who was going to the match and who just decided to join the party. The crowd was so thick they need a police escort for the march to the stadium. Many with badges and batons got in on the singing. Some even whipped out their phone to capture it while still on duty. “Thank you for helping us and everything you do,” one fan wearing a ski mask told a female police officer. Everyone in the crowd was thankful they had a reason to be together.
Lennox Lewis was in attendance for the heavyweight bout between MLS super clubs. “This is massive mate,” he told a fan while signing their jersey. Toronto Raptors’ Patrick Patterson and Lucas Nogueira were bundled up to show their MLSE brothers some love.
In between halves, a popular spot was the concourse heaters. With the temperature in the stadium dipping to minus-10, the winds from the Lakeshore tested the commitment of fair-weather supporters. Heating packs were shoved in gloves. Boots were taken off and held pressed against the heaters. It might not be traditional football weather — it felt more like the Winter Classic — but the elements made it a uniquely Canadian experience.
The man who seemed most likely to score for either team was Jozy Altidore. The best chances were on his foot but the best play of the night came off his head, as he was inches from sending the stadium into pandemonium before Sounders keeper Stefan Frei stole what looked like a sure goal. With his momentum taking him to his right, Frei fought back to his left and took all the air out of the stadium with the palm of his hand. It was a world class save that showcased the quality of the league. Despite the ensuing corner, fans in the stands looked on in stunned silence instead of cheering. Altidore was talking to himself both in disbelief and disappointment. Tossaint Ricketts had the best view from the side netting and let out a guttural groan to the heavens when the chance wasn’t converted. It was the moment of the match everyone was talking about as soon as it happened and well into the night.
Frei was part man, part machine on this night. So when the game went to penalties it felt like an advantage for the Sounders, who would finally get a chance for a shot on goal. The roulette of emotions was cruel theatre. The walk up for every kick seemed to take minutes, not seconds. Roman Torres was an unlikely hero when he slotted home the winning goal, but it was fitting a defender got the praise.
The stadium went from frenzied to silent immediately. In the stands I saw no tears, no jeers, just deep contemplation. In the far corner you could hear the echoes of Seattle fans erupting. That uncanny quiet stayed for about 20 seconds and then all you could hear was “clap-clap-clap, TFC!” — almost like the building was defiant not to be knocked down by a let down, because that’s what this market is accustomed to.
Seattle lost its basketball team, it might never get a hockey team, but its soccer team brought joy to the fans that took over section 203. I’ve seen championship-losing players watch the winning team celebrate. This is the first time I’ve seen opposing fans stick around and watch the away supporters celebrate, even giving them a courtesy clap. As Canadians it might be because we are polite hosts. I suspect it might be because as Torontonians we know what it’s like to get close and not finish.
Christmas came early for the MLS. On what was a fun night of football neither the fans in green or red wanted to leave after the match was done.
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