The wait is finally over

Hometown boy Jim Brennan was the first player signed by Toronto FC. (Sun File/Craig Robertson)

Hometown boy Jim Brennan was the first player signed by Toronto FC. (Sun File/Craig Robertson)

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:23 AM ET

The weather this year in Toronto has been up and down more often than the elevator at the CN Tower.

Equally up and down in Toronto for the past 50 years has been the popularity of local soccer.

Soccer's popularity in Toronto reached a zenith in the 1960s with the formation of the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League and its four teams -- Toronto City, Toronto Italia, the Hamilton Steelers and Montreal Cantalia. The big draws were Toronto Italia because of Toronto's soccer-crazy Italian population and Toronto City because of the star status of its players. Never before, or since, have the captains of England (Johnny Haynes), Scotland (Tommy Younger) and Northern Ireland (Danny Blanchflower) played for the same team in regular league competition.

That era was followed by the emergence of the Toronto Blizzard under Clive Toye and then the Toronto Metros under the guiding hand of Bruce Thomas.

Meanwhile, major league soccer in North America had gained a more or less permanent foothold in several U.S. cities.

In an interesting twist on ownership, the previous dozen teams of MLS were basically owned by two groups of millionaires -- the Anschutz Group, which owned six teams, and the Lamar Hunt Group, which, at one time, owned three franchises.

These multi-franchise owners were eventually forced to sell some of their teams ostensibly to create at least a semblance of independent competition. So, the Anschutz Group this season only owns three franchises -- the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamos, while the Hunt Group is in charge of two -- the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas.

Enter the multi-million dollar Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Limited. Their executives, led by senior vice-president Tom Anselmi, realized the potential of a professional soccer team for Toronto way before superstar David Beckham inked a contract with Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy. MLSE execs have a nose for potential profitable ventures (if not for winning).

Tom Anselmi is one of those talented executives. By taking over the direction of a potential money-making soccer team, he convinced the board of directors to enter a team into Major League Soccer, the top professional loop in North America with 13 teams now owned by 10 separate groups. And so Toronto FC was born at an outlay of $10 million for the franchise fee. This seemed, perhaps, absurd to some critics, but today the value of the next franchise in the league will be $30 million. And, with Beckham's signing providing a major boost, Toronto FC has sold double the projected number of season's tickets for its inauguarl season.

Anselmi, then, began looking for an experienced soccer coach and general manager and found him in the person of Mo Johnston, former star player of Glasgow Celtic and Scotland's national team. The jovial mentor is convinced that he has managed to assemble a competitive team and will introduce his proteges to a likely sold out BMO Field on April 28. However, it must be remembered that "FC" is still an expansion team and, with injuries to two of its key players, has started sluggishly out of the gate.

That said, when Beckham -- with or without his famous bride -- appears in Toronto later this summer, experts claim that tickets for the game will be just as difficult to obtain as for a Stanley Cup final.

It appears, at least at the outset, that Toronto is posed for another upswing in soccer popularity.

Let's hope the popularity elevator keeps going up for awhile.


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