MLS First Kick is a glorious opportunity for Major League Soccer to show the fans of Vancouver just what MLS is made of. "Yeah, you're spending several times the previous price for tickets and merchandise, and you're going to be watching this game from a temporary stadium in the wind and the rain, but this is what's going to make it all worthwhile. Big names and a high quality of play. Look, here's a marquee team that may beat you, but will at least give you a hell of a show! Up MLS!"
So why are we getting Toronto FC?
(We are also, in the strictest sense of the term, not getting MLS First Kick either. The first game of the MLS season will the usual ESPN Tuesday night affair when the Seattle Sounders host the Los Angeles Galaxy in what I can only call a blatant example of pandering to insignificant American markets instead of the real Canadian fans who are going to help this league grow and... okay, I don't mean any of that, I'm just trying to get the rivalry blood up.)
Yes, the Vancouver Whitecaps will begin their MLS life at home on Saturday, March 19, 2011, against Toronto FC. Again. It will be our seventh ever meeting with the FC, and in our previous six contests Vancouver has the edge with 2 wins, 1 loss, and 3 draws to go with a +3 goal differential. Vancouver has never lost at home to Toronto FC, and that was with the second division roster. Theoretically, our MLS lineup should have even more of an advantage.
We're somewhat lucky to be opening our campaign at home, unlike the 2010 Philadelphia Union or the 2011 Portland Timbers but like the 2009 Seattle Sounders. It's also nice that we'll be kicking off our time in Major League Soccer against a team we can beat. I'm also hopeful that the Toronto faithful will fly over from their homes and descend on Empire Fields in force: according to Ben Rycroft via Twitter some 500 Toronto fans made the trip to Philadelphia last season in July, and 1,200 to New England the year before. Vancouver's a lot further, of course, but we're also Canadian and it's no stretch to imagine 150 away supporters swaying the steel stands of Empire. I'm one of those who loves to see good away support at his home ground: it's much more fun when we watch them slump back in shock after giving away three points.
On the other hand, Toronto is old hat as an opponent. Just because a home opener against them is almost three points in the bag doesn't mean I wouldn't prefer to see Los Angeles, or New York, or even the likes of DC United. Something new, something that isn't just the same old Voyageurs Cup match with pricier tickets in a crappier stadium. We don't even really have a rivalry with Toronto, and I think the average Toronto fan would agree that they don't see Vancouver as a rival. The raucous pro-Vancouver crowds at the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Voyageurs Cups were created by one part western alienation and two parts the sheer upset potential of little second division Vancouver snatching points against big bad MLS Toronto. Obviously, when we're both in the first division, that's not going to be a factor.
Sure, we love needling the Toronto fans. I'm sure the TFC-clad blow-up dolls and the "Red Plastic Boys" signs will be coming back out of storage. But this is a fixture with no novelty value and not much emotional value. It's almost a shame.
I shouldn't play down the game too much, I suppose. Die-hard Vancouver and Toronto supporters do love needling each other, for example by forecasting games as being "three points in the bag". The all-Canadian "derby" will also appeal to newer fans: it's easy to figure out why we should all hate Toronto. If the Toronto away support does materialize, it'll lead to a hell of an atmosphere: Vancouver supporters jumping, Toronto supporters trying to sound louder than their numbers, and all of this in a steel stadium which, according to BC Lions fans I've heard from, is acoustically ridiculous and sways up and down like the stand is going to split in half whenever you bounce on the bleachers. If Toronto fans do spend the cash to come out to Vancouver, and if the game lives up to the atmosphere, we could have one of those matches that crosses from "sublime" into "surreal", a supporters' experience that will serve as a drinking story for a long, long time.
Being on a Saturday also means a chance at national television coverage on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Because March is still hockey season and the CBC will of course be showing Hockey Night in Canada, any televised game would have to be in the afternoon, around noon or 1 PM Pacific time. That's probably the prime motivation behind this scheduling, and one reason why the kickoff time hasn't been announced yet. The Major League Soccer office probably wanted Vancouver's debut to be televised, and ESPN may have had no interest in televising it. So the MLS brain trust decided to do the next best thing and find out what would work for the Canadian broadcaster.
Playing in Vancouver in March could be awkward. Early spring weather in Vancouver is rainy, chilly, and unpleasant: not the sort of environment one will want to spend in the rudimentary Empire Fields facilities. Then again, early spring weather in Toronto carries a very real chance of snow. There aren't a lot of great MLS markets where you can play soccer in March, and I'll take a little rain over Vancouver kicking off in Houston against the Dynamo. At least Empire Fields is partially covered, meaning it could hardly be less comfortable than standing in the Southside at Swangard Stadium was.
On balance, this is a disappointing but not irredeemable choice for Vancouver's first MLS adversary. Our first road game is a little tougher: March 26 in Philadelphia. It'll be nice for former Union player Shea Salinas to go home so quickly, but for the rest of us it would be a long trip to see a poor team in a not-particularly-pleasant part of Philadelphia. Still, at least a game at Philadelphia is winnable, and combined with our certain victory against Toronto we may have four or six points from our first two MLS games.
(I told you we love needling Toronto fans. Boy, that's never going to get old.)