Three of the last four NASL championships were held north of the border
When Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas kick off at Toronto's BMO Field on Sunday, it will be the first time the Major League Soccer Cup has been held in Canada. However it's not the first time that a major league North American soccer championship has been contested on Canadian soil. During the final four years of the North American Soccer League, the championship was decided in Canada on three occasions.
In 1981 the venue was Toronto's Exhibition Stadium, as nearly 37,000 filed in to watch a showcase Soccer Bowl clash between New York Cosmos and Chicago Sting. The two teams had finished best in the league, with identical 23-9 records. Both were known for their high scoring play, with a combined average of over five goals a game, and there were plenty of scoring chances, including a spectacular bicycle kick by Cosmos scoring star Giorgio Chinaglia. The game however ended scoreless and went to a shootout, which in the NASL meant dribbling in from 35 yards with a five-second shot clock. In the end it came down to Cosmos defender Bob Iarusci, a member of the Canadian national team and a Toronto native, who needed to score to keep New York alive. Sting keeper Dieter Ferner made the stop to give Chicago it's first major professional sports championship in 18 years.
In 1983, the Soccer Bowl venue was Vancouver, and the newly opened BC Place Stadium! The Whitecaps had enjoyed a sensational season, finishing first overall with a scintillating 24-6 record, thanks to the scoring exploits of Englishmen David Cross and Peter Beardsley and the midfield work of Dutch maestro Frans Thijssen. A Soccer Bowl victory on home turf seemed to be destined for the 'Caps, but it all went horribly wrong. Seventh-seeded Toronto Blizzard knocked out the Whitecaps in the first round of the playoffs in a huge upset, with Vancouver fans outraged by Toronto's defensive and negative tactics.
In something of a Cinderella story, Toronto reached the final to face the Tulsa Roughnecks. The Blizzard assumed they would have home support playing in Vancouver, but Whitecaps fans were not in a forgiving mood and over 60,000 came out to boisterously cheer on Tulsa, who won the game 2-0. Toronto were livid at the lack of Canadian camaraderie, and there's been bad blood between Vancouver and Toronto fans ever since.
That was the last Soccer Bowl match played, as the league switched to a best-of-three format in 1984. Chicago Sting knocked off Vancouver in the semi-finals, and then won the first game of the championship series at home to Toronto Blizzard. The return match was at Toronto's Varsity Stadium, and with the league in decline, less than 17,000 fans were on hand to watch what would be the final NASL game ever played. It was an exciting match with Chicago taking a 2-0 lead, then Toronto storming back to equalize on a goal by Italian great Roberto Bettega. A cruel deflection on a shot by Chicago's Argentine speedster Pato Margetic restored the Sting's lead, and then Chicago keeper Victor Nogueira made a sensational reaction save from a Bettega blast to preserve the 3-2 victory.
26 years later, and the championship match is back in Toronto. Hopefully it will be a game that people are still talking about decades from now as well.