Expansion on TFC's mind

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:56 AM ET

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. has a plan in its back pocket to expand BMO Field by 8,000 seats to ease the wait list of 14,000 for TFC season's tickets.

The first winning campaign by its soccer team and a playoff gate or two would be plenty of incentive to swing the hammer and add real grass, both which seem inevitable.

But while one need not be in place to follow the other, the opening of TFC's third MLS season this week puts it back on the local sports map, but under much closer scrutiny.

TIME TO MATURE

"The honeymoon is over," Tom Anselmi, the COO of MLSEL, said yesterday, joined by manager Mo Johnston at a state of the union meeting with the media. "Year One was inception, Year Two was development and Year Three will be maturation; more competitive, more depth and competing for a playoff spot.

"I said to Mo (in 2006) 'Here are the keys, we'll stay out of your hair'. We have to grow in concentric circles, we don't have to win out of the gate, we want to do it right for the long haul."

TFC has done many things right off the field with sellouts of 20,000 and perhaps the best in-game experience of the MLS's 15 teams. Yet, like the rest of MLSEL's major properties, it doesn't win. The combined record is 16-31-17, with a goal differential of minus-31, though the numbers were a little better last season.

Johnston hoarded draft picks and cap space under the $2.3 million US limit, but with a legit hometown star in Scarborough's Dwayne De Rosario and some carefully scouted foreign talent, there should be an upgrade that translates to victories.

"We've added Dwayne, Pablo Vitti and things have fallen into place," Johnston said. "You can see an air of confidence in our team. We're looking at adding one final piece (in the coming weeks)."

Talk of expanding BMO began right after the incredible ticket demand of the 2007 expansion year, and became a more serious notion late last season. Anselmi said it's easy to build 3,000 to 5,000 seats atop the low south end bleachers, though that might spoil the aesthetics for the club's most fervent fans who have adopted that corner.

There is not much enthusiasm to mess with the north side, where the scoreboard and a popular bar are set up. But Anselmi cautioned that anything to do with stadium expansion required MLSEL's partner, the City of Toronto, to be on board, as well as keep tabs on a possible move by the CFL's Argonauts, which would mean increasing the size of the playing surface.

If they don't draw well at the cavernous Rogers Centre in coming years, the Argos might look at moving, but many TFC fans are going to be against any change in their cozy confines.

Johnston, who served as coach the inaugural season, wouldn't like to lose too much of the unique atmosphere.

"We have a high percentage of our points at home," he said. "The 12th man is our fans. It's fairly hostile here. But now the priority is to win on the road."

After a record of 2-1 in last week's Carolina Challenge Cup, TFC is in Kansas City for Saturday night's season opener (9:30 p.m., Gol TV). They play the following week in Columbus before coming home April 4 to take on the Seattle Sounders.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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