TORONTO — As I enter the lower level of The Loose Moose, one of the innumerable drinking establishments in the city of Toronto, a sea of mostly green-clad Seattle Sounders supporters comes into view. In front of me, a man in his 30s yells out, “Sea-aaaaattle!” The rest of the Sounders fans respond with “Sooooundeeeeers!” Suitably impressed, the man says, “All right, I’m with my people.” The gathering is the latest sign yet that the MLS Cup final between the Sounders and Toronto FC is fast approaching.
There are others, of course. Signs that say “One Game To Glory” dot the city. Then there is the giant set of block letters that read “#MLSCup” on the street outside my hotel. But beyond such marketing accouterments the game itself has gradually taken center stage.
So has the weather. In fact the topic has dominated discussion all week. The city woke up Friday morning to find a dusting of snow covering the ground. It’s a reminder that MLS is pushing the outer limits of the yearly calendar when it comes to its ultimate event. Game-time temperatures are expected to be in the mid-20s Fahrenheit. There is snow in the forecast, though it is expected to subside by kickoff. All told, it will probably be warmer than the 2013 final held in Kansas City, but only just.
Such is the focus on the conditions that at Seattle’s first media availability, manager Brian Schmetzer speaks about the weather at Wednesday’s practice, which actually took place in Seattle. The team had to move training from its frozen grass field to a turf field that was “slightly less frozen.”
“We’ve been training in 30-degree weather all week, so whatever the weather is it’s out of control,” he says. “But we’ll be ready to deal with it.”
Toronto is taking the same attitude. As captain Michael Bradley addresses the media at TFC’s final training session before the match, he lauds the work that the BMO Field grounds staff have done in keeping the field in top shape, an effort aided by the fact that the grass surface has under-soil heating. He also recalls a Bundesliga game he played against Hertha Berlin in February that was “very, very cold.”
“This is not very, very cold,” Bradley says as the sun shines down on those assembled. “This is nice. We’ll see what it’s like [Saturday] night. The big thing is the wind. If we’re lucky enough to have a night where there’s not much wind, I really think — between the people and the night and the environment itself — it will be perfect.”
Toronto is about to complete its 10th season in MLS. Seattle is now eight years into its league sojourn. As such neither team has been around long enough for fans to claim the title of “long suffering.” That said, both sets of fans have endured their share of disappointment, though in wildly differing ways. Seattle has been competitive from the moment it entered the league and has won five trophies, but not a single MLS Cup, though there have been some near misses.
Toronto fans would have given anything to have come that close. It wasn’t until last year, TFC’s ninth season, that the team even so much as reached the playoffs. That it has reached the final has taken on a bit of a surreal quality for some Toronto fans. Phil Tobin, president of the Red Patch Boys, the TFC supporters group, recalls an occasional victory in the Canadian championships, as well as a victory or two in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“This has certainly reached a whole other level for us for sure,” he says.
The unfamiliar territory TFC finds itself in has only exacerbated superstitions. Tobin reveals he has his game-day clothes, including a pair of pants that “I probably need to wash pretty bad because we just seem to keep on winning.”
As for Saturday, Tobin notes that the Red Patch Boys and other TFC supporters groups such as U-Sector and the Inebriatti will spend much of the day at their preferred pubs, engaging in what he calls “game-day preparations.” There will be a march to the game among the TFC faithful, and the club is also planning a street party before the match. Tickets for the game sold out in three minutes, adding to the vibe of the occasion.
“It’s feeling like a really big sporting event,” said Tobin. “It really signals how much soccer has grown in North America.”
As for how he expects to deal with the weather, Tobin says he plans to dress with six layers and hand out hand warmers to anyone who might need them. But he is also thinking about more practical concerns.
“The beer kegs at the concession stands — they don’t have them flowing. They have to serve cans because otherwise the lines will freeze,” he said. “That’s kind of a new development.”
Back at The Loose Moose, the Seattle fans are settling in, grateful on many levels. Some can’t believe the Sounders have made it this far, given their struggles earlier in the season. Others are pleased to have made it to Toronto in time for the final. Some have had to take time off work, not the easiest feat to pull off given the distance, cost and short notice. It was just 10 days ago that it became clear Toronto would host the final.
“I was trying to talk him off the ledge of coming to the game because it was so expensive,” said Nicole Cleveland of her husband, Josh. “But then our boss, said, ‘You guys should go.’ I was like, ‘All right, let’s do this.'”
The Sounders fans have been pleased by the warm reception they’ve received from the host city. One Toronto resident saw Justin Poole standing outside the Hockey Hall of Fame decked out in Sounders gear and asked whether he was lost.
“I thought he was being a smartass,” Poole says. “So then he goes, ‘So you’re good?’ and I realized he was really concerned that I didn’t know where I was. It’s been great.”
Poole and his friends are part of a group of Seattle fans whose journey is as poignant as it is celebratory. Another friend who sat with them for games, Joe Waters, died this past year. Josef Schulman is wearing Waters’ Sounders jersey and plans to take it with him into the stadium on Saturday. Others plan to bring mementos with them to the game.
Brandon Blake decides to honor his friend in a different way. “I don’t drink, but I’m drinking tonight for Joe,” he says, hoisting a beer.
For Sounders fan Jeff Randall, the revelry serves to keep any tension about the match at bay. He notes that the soccer gods are not to be angered “because they will retribute.”
“I was nervous as hell [Thursday]. My stomach was in knots,” he says. “Now I see all these people I know. Some got last-chance tickets from the team. I’m here with my best friends. It’s fantastic. Win or lose it’s going to be a great time.”
The MLS Cup final is now just hours away.