MLS Road Trip Flashback: Part 4 -- The 6
Yes, I quoted Drake in the title, but I'm from Yolo County, so it's okay, right? Regardless of how you feel, doing so is more engaging than my previous ledes, so there's that.
It was mid-July, around the halfway point of our road trip. We just had to get through this section, then we could finally see the light of day and imagine sleeping in our own beds for the first time in what seemed like forever.
If you haven't read any of my previous MLS Road Trip flashback pieces, you can view the intro, which explains what we did four years ago here. Part 1 of the trip is available here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.
However, if you're too lazy to read through my rambling nonsense, here's the short: two friends and I set out to attend and report on 14 MLS games in 12 different cities in a 53-day period during the summer of 2012 in order to help satisfy my journalism school requirements for graduating.
As always, unless otherwise noted, the photos in this post come courtesy of the excellent Dan Perlea.
For each post, I'll highlight 1-4 of the 14 games we attended on the trip. Please note that some of the quotes included may not be 100 percent accurate, as I'm working off four-year-old notes and memory at some points.
This portion of the trip went as follows:
July 9: Drive from Boston to Toronto, 550 miles
Total: 4 days, 1 game, 5 goals, 550 miles.
(Author's note: I originally planned on writing about three games in this piece, but just the first went over 2,000 words, so I split it up.)
We had been on the road for 24 days before we set off from Boston to voyage to Toronto. 24 blurred-together days of endless drives and meals consisting of just Nature Valley Bars and Golazo. It had been just 19 days since we left the West Coast, but it seemed like an eternity.
We'd already traveled 6,627 miles in those 24 days, an average of 276 per day. That's roughly the equivalent of spending four hours a day in a car for more than three weeks straight. It was during this segment of the trip that I realized that we were going to fail.
Initially, I had set out with the goal of the website reaching 100,000 pageviews during the summer, my Twitter account reaching 1,000 followers, and us generating content within 24 hours of attending each game.
The website still doesn't have 100,000 pageviews, it took me until 2015 to garner 1,000 Twitter followers, and at that point we were lucky if content made it up to the website within a week, if at all.
Because I'm a much better (or at least faster) writer now, I can see all the mistakes we made looking back on the trip. People who followed the blog likely looked for almost daily updates. These stopped coming even though some of our most successful posts were the short ones. It wouldn't have been hard to update the website each day with a small post or two about where we were and what we were doing. Instead, I was just focused on getting through the games. I was worried about getting to the end of the journey, rather than just enjoying the journey itself.
Furthermore, we simply weren't talking to enough people. This is still a weakness of mine, though one I've improved on recently. How was anyone supposed to hear about our blog if we were only talking to two or three people per stop? As my college soccer coach used to like to say, "Youth is wasted on the young."
Perlea had made the arrangements to stay in Toronto, where his cousin and her husband (also named Dan) lived. With what was becoming a trend, we arrived near dark in Toronto at the wrong destination. For whatever reason, Perlea's iPhone navigation only took us about a mile from our destination. It's funny, when it takes you just over seven hours to go the first 549 miles of a trip, then another two to go the last one.
Eventually we found the place, and were welcomed with open arms into the Romanian expat home just outside of the city. Our hosts were as generous as ever, though very insistent on making sure that we ate and drank enough. The image of that first cool night, in a lush backyard in a nice suburb, remains in my head now. Cheap Canadian 16 oz. canned lagers filled up the table as our host, Dan, showed us on his computer what he did.
He was in the graphic design world, the type where one generated images of proposed stadiums or events. Essentially, Dan created stadium porn, and he couldn't have been nicer. Every time someone finished a beer, Dan would immediately replace it with a fresh, cold one. After Jake Coburn finished his first, there was about a two-minute conversation between he and Dan as to whether or not to take a second beer. Never much of a drinker, Coburn didn't want to have a second, but Dan probably thought he was just being polite. After maybe three minutes, Coburn reluctantly accepted, then took two-three hours to finish said beer.
"It's a Romanian thing to make sure guests are given enough food and drinks," Perlea texted me when I asked him about this event. "What constitutes enough is basically as much as they have."
It was hard to turn down such great hospitality of our hosts. As someone who never really ate much meat, and especially not processed meat, this week was...well...interesting. Our host family put hot dogs in everything. And I mean everything. Their homemade pizza featured hot dogs instead of pepperoni. Their homemade pickled vegetable soup wasn't complete without a few chunks of hot dog. And so on.
Never in my life have I felt better physically but worse emotionally for rejecting food.
Before the match, we hung out at a weird bar with some Toronto FC supporters. I say weird because it looked exactly like you'd expect a nightclub to look. There were large open spaces filled with just wooden floors, some leather seats in the corners, and no windows to speak of. I asked the supporters where we were. Their answer: a nightclub.
Apparently the TFC supporters group U-Sector was forced to have three different bases of operation. I don't recall the names of any of the three bars, but from what I remember, the pregame nightclub bar was the only one close to BMO Field, so it made sense to pre-game there. The supporters laughed because the beer was so cheap at the normally expensive nightclub, and told me why. Apparently happy hours are illegal in Toronto, so that night club couldn't offered discounted drinks just when U-Sector came to party. They could, however, offer low-cost beer that wasn't discounted from the beer's normal price because, well, the only time they sold that particular beer was right before TFC games.
Alcohol laws are stupid most of the time.
For U-Sector's other two bars, one served as the post-game meeting area and one served as the away game viewing party area. I don't remember why, but it was here that night club that we received a random act of kindness from a TFC supporter. A fan messaged me on Facebook after hearing of our trip and said he'd like to give us some T-shirts. I don't recall the fan's full name -- I believe his first name was David though -- but he simply met up, said hello, and gave me a plastic bag stuffed with three copies of one of my favorite shirts to this day. Pictured below is yours truly modeling said shirt in front of Niagara Falls.
That would be the first of three random acts of kindness that night. Right after that, Red Patch Boys president Phil Tobin gave us RPB scarves, and a random fan after the match let me have his Red Patch Boys 2011 Player of the Year Joao Plata scarf.
Of course you'll want to hear about the games, which didn't disappoint on this section of the trip. In fact, the match in Toronto might just be the best soccer game I've ever been to. It incited reactions such as those below while also giving the home supporters a reason to party afterwards.
This isn't a Perlea image; it comes courtesy of local journalist Duane Rollins instead. More on Rollins in a minute. This wasn't the Toronto FC of Giovinco, Bradley, and Altidore that we saw. This was a joke of a team that featured over-the-hill veterans earning their last or next-to-last paycheck in Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans.
TFC had somehow managed to lose nine games straight opening the season and were just 2-11-4 heading into that night's match. Officially the season was halfway over. Unofficially, it ended far before then. But the fan support didn't and hasn't since wavered. "Think of how bad this team is, and look at how many people are here," U-Sector supporter Mike Doran told me at halftime. As described by Doran, the team was atrocious, but we caught them on the correct night. You can read my mediocre pieces about U-Sector here and about the Red Patch Boys here, but the real story is below.
Everyone knows that Toronto FC were one of the worst-run MLS clubs from roughly 2007-2014, but they were even worse than most might remember. In that eight-year stretch of futility, TFC put together a collective record of 62-120-74, good for 1.02 points per game. Yes, Toronto averaged a tie until Sebastian Giovinco arrived in Canada. Everyone I've spoken to regarding early TFC says the same thing: Mo Johnston was a great player, but he had no idea how to coach or manage one. Johnston was the coach for Toronto's 6-17-7 expansion year team, and then their GM until he was fired in late 2010. Former U.S. Men's National Team coach Bob Gansler -- an assistant on the 2007 team -- once told me on the record that he retired from full-time coaching rather than work a second year with Johnston.
Heading into that match in 2012, TFC's all-time record stood at 42-78-51, which was good for a slightly better points per game ratio of 1.04. And yet, Toronto fans supported the team in droves -- 18,131 was the lowest average attendance in those first four years. "I honestly believe that the second wave of MLS support started with us," one TFC supporter told me at a bar following the game (before retreating to the men's room to ingest a questionably legal substance). "D.C. United fans started it, but we brought it to the next level."
That fan was correct, in a way. D.C. United always had La Barra Brava providing a true soccer atmosphere just south from the always underrated New York fans. Section 8 then followed their lead in 1998, supporting the Chicago Fire. But the Toronto FC fans bridged the gap in between the early supporters groups and what images now come to mind when we think of passionate soccer crowds in this country -- the Portlands, the Seattles, the Kansas Citys. The iconic moment from those early TFC years was probably the seat cushion-giveaway game, in which fans hurled the Frisbee-shaped objects towards the pitch after Danny Dichio poked home the first goal in club history.
But the results on the field never matched the passion off it, which leads me to the above photo.
After a scoreless first half, Darren Mattocks gave the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps FC a lead in the 50th minute. Two quick TFC goals from Luis Silva and Torsten Frings quickly turned the deficit into a one-goal lead as the Reds attempted to close out just their third win of the season.
It was a hopeful ball -- if anything -- from Whitecaps left back that changed the course of the game. There's not really much else to say other than that Darren Mattocks literally jumped over a guy and headed home from nothing. If you subscribe to the asinine argument that our best athletes aren't playing soccer, click on the link from the previous sentence. If you don't though, also click on it.
As Mattocks sprinted in front of U-Sector, making a heart with his hands above his head, beers rained down and the finger came out from supporters. It was vintage TFC -- sometimes promising, but mostly disappointing. I turned to Coburn after the goal. He just stood there with his jaw wide open, unable to conjure any words for what we'd just seen.
"That was probably one of my [most] lasting soccer memories for me on the trip," Coburn recalled to me recently. "Seeing him run towards the Toronto group with his hands in the shape of a heart...he was one of my favorite MLS players after that."
What happened next was decidedly anti-TFC. In the 95th minute of stoppage time -- the last chance of the game -- Frings lined up to take a corner kick. You can view the play at the 5:00 mark here, but unexpectedly, Frings whipped in a perfect corner kick that midfielder Terry Dunfield headed into the upper left corner of the net, just over the head of legendary South Korean defender Lee Young-pyo. Dunfield had been a member of the Reds for just three days total after he was traded to the club by...the Whitecaps.
For Toronto FC, it was just the club's fourth come-from-behind victory ever, their sixth second-half stoppage time goal ever, and their first-ever comeback victory that included a second-half stoppage time goal. The Reds wouldn't make the playoffs for another three years, but the TFC fans didn't care that night -- off-key renditions of Depeche Mode's "I just can't get enough" echoed throughout the hallways of the Toronto metro as fans went to go party.
We joined up with U-Sector post game, where I met the aforementioned Rollins. "You're a journalist?" I recall him asking to me. "Well, we're fucked. We're all fucked."
He's not wrong. My bank account balance can prove it.