BY BRUCE CONSTANTINEAU
Toronto FC is exactly where the Vancouver Whitecaps expect to be in two years – playing before sellout crowds in Major League Soccer.
Toronto hasn’t had the most spectacular on-field performance in its first two MLS seasons – with a collective record of 15 wins, 30 losses and 15 ties in 2007 and 2008.
It also lost the Nutrilite Canadian Championship last year to the upstart USL-1 Montreal Impact, which advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal and played before 55,000 people at Olympic Stadium in a 2-0 win over Santos Laguna.
But Toronto FC’s phenomenal off-field success has made it the poster child for new pro sports league franchises. Bank of Montreal reportedly paid more than $25 million for team stadium and jersey naming rights.
BMO Field regularly sells out all 20,500 seats for Toronto FC games and the team capped its season ticket sales at 16,000 for the 2009 season, leaving more than 14,000 people on the waiting list for season tickets.
The club’s success helped inflate MLS franchise fees from $10 million (all US dollars), which Toronto paid in 2005, to $35 million, which Vancouver and Portland agreed to pay this year.
Toronto’s player payroll alone exceeds the entire operating budgets of most USL-1 teams, which average between $2 million and $3 million. Toronto FC’s player payroll this season is about $3.3 million. Midfielder Dwayne De Rosario is the team’s highest paid player, with guaranteed compensation of $425,750 this season.
So how important is it for Canada’s lone MLS team to defeat the USL-1 Whitecaps for the right to represent Canada in CONCACAF Champions League?
“There are definitely bragging rights — when you’re a champion, you’re a champion,” De Rosario said during a news conference Monday. “Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver all want to be the ones to say they’re the champions of Canada.”
He played with the MLS Houston Dynamo last year but was disappointed when the Impact beat Toronto for the Nutrilite championship.
“Being in Toronto now, I don’t want to experience that feeling again,” De Rosario said.
Toronto FC head coach Chris Cummins said he will field the strongest team possible for the game against Vancouver.
“If we don’t, we’ll get beat,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Cummins respects the quality of USL soccer but feels a short tournament like the Nutrilite doesn’t always provide a fair reflection of the differences between MLS and USL play.
“Teams like Vancouver and Montreal and Rochester and Portland have good players but can they perform at a high level week in and week out?” he said. “You can always bring your game up for a couple of games but it’s a lot harder to maintain that level of play over a long time.”
Cummins expects the Whitecaps will be very strong and aggressive on the field his team, knowing they need a win for any chance to capture the Canadian Championship.
“We just hope our quality at the end of the day might come out on top,” he said. “People like (De Rosario) and Pablo Vitti are match winners and we’re hoping they can help us get the result we want.”
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi feels the top four or five players on each MLS club are better than the comparable players on each USL team.
“But after that, I’m not so sure there’s a great difference,” he said. “I think there are players in our league that could easily play in MLS and more than hold their own.”
But Lenarduzzi also noted Toronto looked a lot stronger in its two 1-0 Canadian Championship wins over Vancouver and Montreal this year than those scores would indicate.
“They should have won each game by three or four goals,” he said. “They really showed their pedigree and it’s going to take an extra special performance on our part for us to get a victory.”
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