The 11 moments that defined Canadian soccer

Olympic gold and NASL titles; not bad eh?

With the MLS Cup set to kick off at BMO Field in Toronto on Sunday (8:30 pm ET, ESPN) and the arrival of the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps FC next season, the focus of Major League Soccer certainly falls north of the border this week and into 2011.

But all that still lies in the future. MLSsoccer.com takes a look back into the past at some of the most formative and important moments in Canadian soccer history as Toronto gets set to make new history this week.

Nov. 17, 1904: Canada wins Olympic Gold

Soccer was hardly a big deal at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, with only three teams (two of them American) and only two days of competition. The results don’t show up in many history books, but the gold medal went to Galt Football Club, a tiny outfit from a lovely little southwestern Ontario river town. It’s not exactly Brazil v Germany, but following a 7-0 win over Christian Brothers College, a 4-0 whitewash of St. Rose sealed the historic deal.

Aug. 28, 1976: Toronto Metros-Croatia win NASL title

Led by the great Eusebio, the upstart Torontonians triumphed in Soccer Bowl ’76, downing the Minnesota Kicks 3-0 in the cozy confines of Seattle’s Kingdome. ABC television hates Toronto’s ethnic nickname, and orders its announcers merely to refer to the teams as “Toronto” and “Minnesota.” This has the happy side-effect of keeping casual fans from hearing the name “Kicks,” one of the blandest nicknames in world soccer history.

Sept. 8, 1979: Whitecaps win NASL title

Vancouver famously knocked off the New York Cosmos in a tie-breaking semifinal mini-game, then iced the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-1 to claim Canada’s second (and final) NASL crown. The ‘Caps were 20-10 that summer, led by 15 goals from Englishman Kevin Hector, and 10 more from Trevor Whymark. Bob Lenarduzzi – now president of the MLS Whitecaps – scored three times as a fulltime defender in 1979.

Sept. 14, 1985: Canada qualifies for the World Cup

Canada defeated Honduras 2-1 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the final match of round-robin CONCACAF qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Local legend has it that most of the traveling Honduras fans somehow ended up in Saint John, New Brunswick, more than 800 miles away. A cold day, a ragged pitch, and still the only time Canada has qualified for The Big Show.

June 1, 1986: Canada debuts at World Cup

Canada almost tied Michel Platini and mighty France in this historic debut, but a 79th-minute marker from Jean-Pierre Papin gives Les Bleus a 1-0 escape. Canada subsequently lost to both Hungary and Russia, and exited the World Cup without scoring a goal. The grit and heart the Canucks showed in the France game, however, remains a huge inspiration to everyone involved in Canadian soccer.

1998-1991: Vancouver 86ers dynasty

Yes, there have been attempts to start Canadian pro soccer leagues. The Canadian Soccer League lasted from 1987 to 1992, before becoming yet another victim of high travel costs in a hockey-mad nation that still doesn’t even have its own professional hockey league. The Whitecaps morphed into the 86ers, and for four consecutive seasons, they dominated. They won their first three titles all against the Hamilton Steelers – by a combined score of 13-4. The fourth was a 5-3 shootout win over the remains of the Toronto Blizzard.

Feb. 27, 2000: Canada wins CONCACAF Gold Cup

Consecutive triumphs over Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Colombia left no doubt that the upstart Canadians were, indeed, worthy Gold Cup champions. Canada had been unimpressive in group play (two draws in two matches), but were inspired and unstoppable once the knock-out rounds began.

Sept. 1, 2002: FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship

A huge, boisterous crowd of 47,000 rocks Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton as Canada plays the United States in the final. The Americans ultimately won a thrilling, electrifying match 1-0 on a golden goal in extra time. But the real significance of this game comes later. The huge success of this tournament leads directly to Canada hosting the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the construction of BMO Field in Toronto – and the creation of Toronto FC.

May 11, 2006: Toronto FC is born

The dream of top-flight pro soccer in Canada was dead – until a last minute deal brokered by Toronto Mayor David Miller and sports conglomerate Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment clinched the construction of BMO Field. Very soon after that, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced Toronto FC as the league’s 13th franchise. Almost a quarter century after the death of the NASL’s Toronto Blizzard, this miraculous string of deals ushered in a new era for Canadian soccer.

Apr. 28, 2007: Opening day for TFC

Toronto lost 1-0 to Kansas City, but a huge, loud and boisterous crowd packed the park, amazing everybody including themselves. An entire new generation of Toronto soccer fans found meaning, purpose – and a real team of their very own – in a sweet little stadium straddling what used to be left field in old Exhibition Stadium. An even greater moment comes two weeks later, on May 12, when Danny Dichio scores the first goal in Toronto FC history, and thousands of free give-away seat cushions fly.

Feb. 25, 2009: Montreal Impact draw huge crowd in CONCACAF Champions League

Despite warnings that Montreal’s Olympic Stadium would be ordered closed if it snowed, the Impact packed in an astonishing crowd of 55,571 for their CCL quarterfinal first-leg match against Santos Laguna of Mexico. That brought back memories of the NASL’s Montreal Manic, who pulled 56,255 for a league match against Vancouver in 1983. This sent a clear signal to MLS that Montreal can – and will – support a top-tier team. Not bad, eh?

Ben Knight is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com and writes the Onward Soccer blog at canadiansoccernews.com.