Confessions of a TFC beat reporter: There were times I wanted to quit

Craig Forrest, Danny Dichio and James Sharman preview the upcoming MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field.

TORONTO – The first thing you need to know about the BMO Field press box is that not all seats have been created equal.

If you’re stuck in the third row, good luck to you—you’re better off watching the game on the TV screens mounted on the press box walls. If you’re in the second row, you can’t see the near touch line. Even if you’re fortunate enough to sit up front, you’ll likely have to crane your neck around a pillar at some point to watch the action.

From what I hear, Seat #1, occupied by Kurt Larson of the Toronto Sun, has a lovely view. But Seat #12 on the front row is of special significance for me beyond offering a perfect sight line from corner flag to corner flag of the pitch below: It’s where I’ve watched all but three home games as a Toronto FC beat reporter.

Ever since TFC defeated the Montreal Impact to punch its ticket to the MLS Cup, one question has been repeatedly posed to me by friends, family and co-workers: What’s it been like covering this team for the past decade?

Well, let me tell you.

The last two seasons have been amazing. Getting to watch a player the calibre of Sebastian Giovinco in his prime up close and personal has been a professional highlight. The quality of the soccer on offer by TFC has been very good, the team has been winning (always a plus), and home games provide the best fan atmosphere in the city. The gameday experience for the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Argos and Blue Jays simply can’t compare to what goes on at BMO Field.

A lot of hard work and personal sacrifice goes into covering this team on an in-depth basis. But I get paid to watch and write about soccer, so what do I have to complain about, right? Besides, the last two seasons have been such a fun and wonderful experience that it hasn’t felt like a job at all. I count my blessings every day.

Now, Toronto FC’s first eight years in Major League Soccer are another story entirely.

For most of my time covering this team, it has been a soul-sucking, crap-eating, pride-swallowing gig. Constant sniggering from my colleagues in the news room left me demoralized. This beat wore me out emotionally—I became incredibly jaded, and more than once I seriously considered walking away.

It wasn’t the losing that bothered me. I could always deal with that. It was the sheer incompetency of this organization and the constant cycle of hopelessness that broke my spirit. The repetition of mistakes made by those charged with running the team, both on and off the field, made it seem like there was no end in sight.

That might sound like I’m over-stating it, but I’m not. What you must understand is that from 2007 to 2014, this was a bad team. I mean, comically bad. For most of that time, TFC was the laughingstock of MLS. Even the “Bloody Big Deal” season was bad, because that ill-fated, ill-conceived PR stunt made what was a mediocre campaign by most teams’ standards look far worse.

Remember the nine straight losses to start 2012? The 5–0 loss to the Red Bulls on the last day of the 2009 campaign? Yeah, I’d like to forget those moments, too.

After one game against San Jose, former assistant coach Bob de Klerk asked me about an opposing player: “Who is that Sam Cronin guy? He’s pretty good. We could use someone like him on our team.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the previous TFC coach had traded him to San Jose for practically nothing.

During TFC’s inaugural 2007 MLS season, the team set a league record for futility by going 824 consecutive minutes (more than nine matches) without scoring a goal. By the fifth game, my fellow reporters and I became restless in the press box, so we started a pool, betting on which player would score to end the streak. Miguel Canizalez ended up finding the back of the net against Columbus, and the Globe and Mail’s Larry Milson ended up taking the pot—he also earned the right to ask TFC’s goal scorer the first question during the post-match locker room interviews.

The last-minute game collapses, the inept signings (Mista? Really?), the managerial merry-go-round, the constant turnover of the roster—for the longest time, this was a franchise enveloped in a culture of dysfunction.

After the honeymoon period that all expansion franchises enjoy, reality quickly settled in. BMO Field became a very dark place. The mood at the club was foul. It was pure poison, acidic. Going to games and trekking up to the team’s training facility in north Toronto to cover practices felt like a prison sentence. Writing negative story after negative story became not only a legitimate challenge (how many ways are there, really, to write a team sucks?) but a personal hazard.

The club took notice of the tone of my coverage, and they didn’t like it—and they routinely expressed their displeasure.

I’ve been pulled aside by two TFC captains who complained about something I wrote about them. One of them did it in a very polite and respectful manner. The other took a different approach, using a string of profanities and physical intimidation to get his point across.

I was mocked and belittled by one former coach in front of a crowd of people after I stood up for a fellow reporter, TSN’s Kristian Jack, because I thought he’d been treated unfairly and with a great deal of disrespect by one of the club’s assistant coaches.

A former general manager found out I was scheduled to go on a local radio station to talk about TFC during a particular low point in the team’s history. Just before I was about to go on the air, I received an email from him: “Just so you know, I’ll be listening. Watch what you say, because I’m marking your card.”

No, I didn’t know what it meant, either. I had to quickly Google “marking your card” to discover he’d made a not-so-veiled threat.

Then there was the time a coach asked me to join him for a moment in a private room at BMO Field. “Let’s have a chat,” was how he prefaced it. It wasn’t a chat. He yelled at me for 10 minutes, dropping F-bombs in response to a story I wrote about how the club was unfairly shutting out one of its most iconic players. When I stood my ground, I was frozen out during press scrums, and given one-word answers—or none at all—whenever I asked a question of the coach.

There are countless other incidents of being lectured by disgruntled coaches, players and employees I could tell you about. But I also have stories about moments of genuine generosity, and kindness of spirit.

When I left CBC Sports to join Sportsnet in 2011, then-coach Aron Winter got wind of it and asked the club’s media-relations manager for my phone number. Winter called me at home to congratulate me, and when I told him I was a bit nervous about making the move, he gave me a pep talk to assuage my fears.

“I have every confidence in you, John,” he assured.

Two years ago, my mother died following a lengthy battle with brain cancer. GM Tim Bezbatchenko was kind enough to give his condolences, and he even offered to miss a road trip to Columbus to attend the funeral.

“We’re a family, John,” he said.

I thanked him for the gesture and told him he should go to the game.

And then there was Michael Bradley, a player with whom I have verbally jousted on more than one occasion in the press scrums. Toronto’s captain has a reputation for being aloof with local reporters who cover the team, yours truly especially.

But it was Bradley who offered the sweetest condolences to me after my mom’s death. After being with my family for two weeks, I finally returned to the job. At my first practice back, Bradley spotted me and walked over, patted me on the back, and said, “Sorry for your loss. You’ve been in our thoughts and prayers. It’s good to have you back, though.”

Bradley’s warm gesture underlined the sense of community that defines Toronto FC. Ultimately, that’s how I’ve answered questions about what it’s been like covering this team for the past 10 years—it’s felt like I’ve been a part of a very special community.

Win or lose on Saturday, that community will continue to thrive. I just hope I have the privilege to be a member for another 10 years.

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