A wild first year for Toronto FC

DEAN MCNULTY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

When Jim Brennan started thinking about coming home to play professional soccer, it was mostly a cautionary process.

The 29-year-old Toronto native knew only too well that getting his hopes up could well result in another dashed dream that pro soccer could actually gain a foothold in Canada's biggest city.

After all, Brennan knows from experience of such things.

In 1996, at only 17, his natural ability with a soccer ball already was under international scrutiny by way of his play on the Canadian under-17 squad, where he so impressed manager Tony Taylor that when Taylor took an assistant's job with Bristol City in England he convinced the team's brass to bring over his star pupil.

"For a Canadian kid, that was it," Brennan said. "There were no options at that time to further your game at home."

ACCEPTANCE

He had seen first-hand the failures of the Toronto Metros-Croatia, the Blizzard and sundry other pro teams to gain any sort of mass acceptance from the city's sports fans.

And although the thought of leaving his family and friends for a job an ocean away was daunting, to say the least, Brennan knew it was his only chance to move forward with his dream of playing soccer at the world's top levels.

Three years after his arrival in Britain, Brennan set a record for a Canadian by fetching $2.6 million in a deal that sent him to Nottingham Forest of the English Premier League.

While he went on to play for Huddersfield, Norwich City and Southampton, Brennan always hoped that one day he could showcase his talents at home.

But even though he has been a staple on Canada's national team with 43 caps, it wasn't until rumours that Toronto might be getting a Major League Soccer franchise that Brennan dared to think it was possible to come home again.

"A lot of time, you hear talk about it, but you never think it's going to happen," he said in a pre-season interview. "I was at a point when I was going back to England and found out Toronto got a team. They phoned me up and said: 'Do you want to come back and play?' It wasn't a hard decision to make."

Brennan became the first brick in the building of what would become the most successful startup franchise in MLS history.

The extent of that success surprised Brennan, however, and many others who, like him, had all but given up on the idea that the world's game could make such an impact in Toronto.

"I didn't know what to expect when I came back," he said. "I just knew that I wanted to come back and play in this city, but I didn't have a clue that it was going to turn out like this.

"I don't think anybody knew it was going to be like this."

What it turned into was an instant hit.

By the time the first game was played at the brand new BMO Field on April 28 against the Kansas City Wizards, the team pretty much was guaranteed standing-room-only crowds at every game.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which owns the team, had crossed its fingers that the 20,000-seat stadium on the grounds of Exhibition Place would be enough to least attract enough season-ticket holders to make their $10-million franchise fee worthwhile.

They were overwhelmed, however, when so many fans sought seats that the team stopped selling season ducats after 14,000 were snapped up three months before the first home match.

"I remember that first home game, walking out from the tunnel and hearing 20,000 people singing the national anthem with their scarves in the air, it was something else," Brennan said. "It is something that I will never forget."

He said that, in a way, the response to TFC at BMO Field may have spoiled the team.

"You go down to play in a place like Kansas City where there is only a couple of thousand people in the stands, it is hard to get up for a game," Brennan said. "But when you come here and get to play in front of a home crowd of more than 20,000 people, it means everything to us."

If Brennan has any regrets, it is that the team has not been able give the fans the number of wins they deserve.

"We sure would have liked to give them a few more results," he said. "But we are still building here. Next year, I think there are only good things ahead for us."

Brennan is most proud, however, of the fact that the acceptance of TFC into Toronto's pro sports landscape makes soccer, as a career, something that Canadian youngsters can aspire to without having to leave home as he did.

"It gives the kids a chance to play in their country or home town," he said. "It gives kids goals to strive for now."


Videos

Photos