The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 12:08 PM ET

Mo Johnston is one week into his new job as head coach of the freshly minted Toronto FC soccer club, a couple of days from signing his first player, and somewhere between scouting trips that will take him from Toronto to Kansas City, Montreal and assorted sweatshops in Europe.

"This is a 24/7 job," he says as the clatter of domestic life echoes around him across the phone lines from his Kansas City home. "You have to keep your phone on because the club works around the world. You're looking at guys in other countries and you have to be able to take their calls."

Johnston always has been willing to answer a call, even from the most curious of places. It was 17 years ago that Johnston, the soul of the Glasgow Celtic in the 1980s, returned from Nantes, France, to resume playing in Scotland. Instead of returning to his roots he became the first high-profile Catholic to join crosstown rival Rangers, with its vibrant Protestant roots.

Maurice Thomas Johnston, born in 1963 in Glasgow, never has been afraid to take the path less trodden. This, in itself, may make him a logical choice as Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. tries to sell its Major League Soccer team to a recalcitrant Toronto audience. Soccer has been a tougher sell here than a steak barbecue on the Ganges. Not that Toronto FC and Johnston don't have some positives on their side.

There's a new stadium. "For Canadian kids this will be like playing for the national team," Johnston, never short of hyperbole about anything MLSEL, says of a $64-million complex due to open this spring at Exhibition Place. "I'm confident we can fill that place with 20,000 fans."

There's solid ownership. MLSEL has deeper financial resources than some small countries and better marketing. "To move forward in this league you need stability. The (MLSEL) involvement gives this franchise stability," he says. "I didn't realize how big (MLSEL) really was. At the news conference (announcing his signing) there were 17 TV cameras. I was amazed. When I took over (as head coach of New York's) MetroStars we didn't have such response. I'd never seen so many cameras since I came to North America."

And there is the league itself. The MLS is on stronger footing than any other pro soccer league that has attempted to catch the imagination of Toronto fans in the past century.

The Toronto Blizzard were members of the North American Soccer League from 1979 until 1984, when the league met its demise by trying to build on a creaky foundation of aging overseas stars. The MLS has imports but it has also cultivated grassroots. That, Johnston says, has grown local fan bases.

"The MLS has grown tremendously. They've done it properly," he says. "I'm not going down the old route buying a Pele or George Best or the old major stars and spending $5 or $6 million on them. I believe in bringing young Canadians back from Europe, blend in some Europeans and build from there. This league is expanding ... new stadiums are going up. For Canada this team can only be a good thing."

Maybe. Brave talk can't disguise the fact that this franchise has one huge barrier holding it back: History. It hasn't been kind to pro soccer in this country. While the grassroots popularity of the game is undeniable it hasn't outgrown puberty. Internationally, Canada's record is abysmal. The few world class players the country has developed seek asylum in Europe.

"They've never had a proper a professional team in a proper league," Johnston argues. After the NASL folded underneath the Blizzard, the team spent one year in the National Soccer League. Mostly ignored. The Canadian Soccer League wrote its epitaph within six years. Toronto's American Professional Soccer League team stumbled through one season of ignominy.

None of this fazes Johnston. "Judge me and the team on what we do from Day 1," he says. "I don't look back."

He will go anywhere to make this team work. "I love going abroad. Last year I was in Poland, the Czech Republic, England, the Premiership and Scotland. That's what I'm all about. That's what the Metro Stars wanted; they wanted you to improve the team. We took in a lot of games and training and it was great. (MLSEL) has done the same."

So, tomorrow night he'll be in Montreal to watch Canada play Jamaica. "I'm really close to signing a Canadian international player," he says.

The Toronto franchise has tweaked the interest of Canadian players, Johnston claims. "It's something the players have wanted for a long time. I spoke to someone in England who's looking at coming back. My phone hasn't stopped ringing since 7 o'clock this morning. They're excited. The buzz has been tremendous."

So the players are sold and the media largely tamed. But what of the fans?

There was a joke making the rounds before the team was named FC that they should call it The Fighting Ethnics. An obvious exaggeration but also one tinged with reality.

Toronto's soccer fans always have been a group with fractured interests. Italian fans come out to see touring Italian teams; the Greeks love the Greeks and the English will show up for Manchester or Liverpool. But nobody has ever figured out how to get them all out to cheer for a Toronto team.

"Look, I'm confident this can work," Johnston says. "I've done my homework and know the people here love their soccer. They're getting a team in the MLS, which they've never seen. It's going to be on TV. It's going to be spoken about. Maybe we do get a big-name Italian, or a big-name English or Portuguese. All that's possible.

"But above all I want to build a winning franchise. We do that, and the fans will come."


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