Home MLS Toronto FC TFC gets a lot of good news, but does its fan base even know how to deal with good news?

TFC gets a lot of good news, but does its fan base even know how to deal with good news?

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Toronto FC media day, 2013 edition, could be renamed “Wow, Nothing Bad or Controversial Happened Day.”

New coach Ryan Nelsen will start with the Reds on Feb. 1, as he’s come to an agreement with Queens Park Rangers to end his playing career; Eric Hassli, who was rumoured to be unhappy in Toronto, said he’s happy and looking forward to the season; TFC hired well-liked Canadian Pat Onstad to take over as head scout; the Reds took a couple of players in the Supplemental Draft — Ashton Bennett and Jose Gomez — who have large upsides but fell in the later rounds.

But President Kevin Payne and Nelsen will now have to get used to what more than a half-decade of mismanagement has done to a city that’s always struggled with its self-image (more on that later). Instead of a day of success, they’ll find the reaction they get is one of a fan base that’s still waiting for a shoe to drop.

That’s because this is a fan base that’s used to taking every drop of good news with a cup of bad news. For every ray of light, there’s a train. When Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto’s greatest MLS player, signed with his hometown team, it was followed by an acrimonious divorce. As TFC got to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, it was in the midst of a nine-game losing streak to start the season. TFC fans have seen their team acquire piles of allocation money, then watch the players the team sent away for said allocation dough transform themselves into some very good MLS players.

Newton’s law doesn’t apply for TFC. In Toronto, every action is met with a far more vicious, far more vengeful reaction.

So, a day like today feels like an eye in the hurricane. That’s life in the Toronto sports market.

It’s no doubt the most ambivalent sports city in North America. In no other North American city would teams that struggle so regularly be rewarded with such high attendances. But Toronto’s strange position in the pro sports market likely comes from its scrambled collective psyche — a mix of population and a perfect storm of geography.

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, but sits on a small strip of Canada that dips into the Great Lakes like a probing finger. So, Toronto is surrounded on three sides by America. Even though it’s a wonderful city with so many things to see and do, it’s hard to find a place that is so unsure of itself. Toronto needs to look at global city rankings, inject the words “world class” in front of everything it can, to prop up a feeling of self worth that should never have been that poor in the first place.

Toronto eats itself in so many ways — just look at its last municipal election, which saw a large suburban voting pool turn against its downtown and vote in Mayor Rob Ford, an election motivated by a sense of revenge against outgoing mayor David Miller — and it’s reflected in its pro sports culture. I’ve always believed that pro sports is a strong reflection of the social and political cultures which surround it. Why else would we cheer for men we don’t know, who aren’t our friends, simply for the uniforms they wear? Why is the sports section so well read and so important, if all it did was to promote and advertise the business of sport? No, there is something deep and tribal there — which has exaggerated itself in the era of social media. Sports teams can build a region’s confidence, they can reflect a community’s optimism.

But, in Toronto, hometown heroes and superstars are devoured; that feeling of self-loathing is shown buy how quickly Toronto sports fans are to bury their idols. If De Rosario does his now infamous cheque signing gesture in any other MLS city, fans are angry for a day or two, then they get over it. After all, the guy scored goals.

Yet, alongside Toronto’s constant eat-its-own mentality, there’s a feeling that someone is always watching; that if there are empty seats at sporting events someone in Chicago or New York will snicker and claim that Toronto isn’t “major league.” That’s why the Argos don’t draw — Toronto is OK showing off indifference to the people of Winnipeg and Regina and Calgary. These aren’t the places to which Toronto compares itself.

So, there’s actually something vaguely comforting in sports teams that continue to stumble. They are rewarded with rabid fan bases, who can then propagate enough vitriol to chase the stars away and make the place less and less attractive for free agents to go (remember the days when playing for the Leafs was every hockey-playing kid in Ontario’s dream?). That vitriol begets more vitriol and allows Torontonians to continue doing what they do best: Being unsure of themselves. If you’ve lived in various Canadian cities, you understand the difference: There’s Montreal’s sense of culture and purpose; the brash confidence, even arrogance, of Edmonton and Calgary. There’s Vancouver’s sense of conviction. Toronto, though, should love itself, but doesn’t.

In the long run, TFC’s ineptitude has become a warm blanket for a city that lives in the most unique bubble in North American sports; too large, too cosmopolitan, to be happy with just being known as Canada’s premier city; yet too close to the bright lights of New York and Chicago to feel sure of itself on an international stage.

And this is what Payne and Nelsen have to wrestle with; they’ll need to not only try to win, but to teach a fan base how to be happy. And that could be the hardest task of all in North America’s most confounding sports market.

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