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The wait lasted 497 days, and at the end of it, the only word that fit was joy. As Toronto FC returned to BMO Field for the first time since March 2020, supporters savored the moment.
“Joy is the operative word,” said Mike Newell, a member of Kings In The North supporters group. “It was unbridled joy.”
Kings In the North, along with the several other supporters groups that make up the South End, including Red Patch Boys, U-Sector, Original 109 and Tribal Rhythm Nation, have had to endure months of watching their team playing from afar.
“It’s been really tough not to have the club around for that long,” Newell said. “I’ve been a season ticket holder forever, and to have this not be here, to not have that constant is tough, especially when you’re in a supporters group. You have people that become really great friends, and you haven’t been able to see them. So it just compounded the whole pandemic issue.”
Being a soccer supporter during the pandemic has been challenging for all supporters, but supporters of Major League Soccer’s Canadian teams have faced a particularly unique set of challenges.
As many teams returned to their stadiums for a shortened MLS season last fall, Canada’s clubs were unable to cross the border consistently, meaning Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver had to set up shop in the U.S. Toronto played all of its 2020 home matches in Hartford, Connecticut. Then, as the 2021 MLS season approached, COVID restrictions between the U.S. and Canada still prevented clubs from moving freely between countries, forcing TFC to begin its season using Orlando’s Exploria Stadium as its home base.
As supporters around the league began to pack their home stadiums, TFC supporters could only watch from afar.
“There was definitely some jealousy,” said Newell.
During that time, Toronto’s BMO Stadium sat vacant downtown, almost teasing fans.
“You see it, you pass it, you walk around it. Not being able to go in it was tough,” said Newell.
Over the past 14 months, supporters used Discord and group chats to keep interest and enthusiasm high. But the absence of an in-person supporters scene was also a reminder of the essential role that supporters play.
“During the pandemic, we tried to find ways to keep connected,” Newell said. “Kings of the North have a Discord which was a lifesaver in terms of being able to stay connected, watch games together, have game threads throughout and chat throughout. So that kept the core group together and coming out of it now. I think people really recognize the value of supporter groups and how they’re able to keep the conversation going when the team’s not here.”
Then, a few days before TFC’s July 17th match against Orlando City, South End supporters received the news they’ve waited more than a year to hear: TFC was coming home. Not only that, 7,000 fans would be allowed to attend the match. The club had been working with leadership from each supporters group to communicate the re-opening plan and allocate tickets for each SG, so even with the short notice, supporters were ready.
On July 17th, Newell was able to do something he hadn’t done in 497 days, walk into BMO Field and watch Toronto FC play.
“Most people are double vaxxed here, so there were just a lot of hugs, a lot of high-fives,” he said. “It was almost like the result didn’t matter. It was secondary to the joy.”
It didn’t take long for things to click back into place.
“One of the things I was always concerned about was that I was going to forget the chants,” he said. “A couple days before the game I was trying to go through some chants and there’d be little blank spots. I used to be a capo so you’d think I’d know the words by heart at any time, but sometimes you just get a little rusty. But once you’re back in the stands, it’s like a sensory memory kind of thing, and you’re just sort of kicked back into place. When you first step in, it was very much like, I never want to take this for granted again, this is an amazing feeling, and you start to slip back into the old routine of things.”
Toronto tied Orlando 1-1, then tied the New York Red Bulls 1-1 on Wednesday at home, with 14,000 in attendance. Three points from either match would have been nice, but seeing the players in person, noticing the relief in their body language, to be back in their home city, was a boost for supporters.
“I think there’s a greater appreciation of the players, and I think there’s a greater bond, especially with the players who have been here for a while,” Newell said. “There’s a greater appreciation of supporting the players and getting behind them and understanding them more as humans, not just as football players. Because of that, I think it’s just strengthened a lot of the supporter groups and the resolve of the supporter groups to support the players.”
TFC’s schedule is backloaded with home matches in the second half of the season, and while those matches are not guaranteed to be played at BMO, Newell is preparing for the possibility that supporters can fall back into the late season grind, something that he’ll savor.
“Sometimes when you go through a season, you go through all of the stuff supporter groups have to go through, go through in relationships with other people things like that,” he said. “You forget that it’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be joy, it’s supposed to be getting in the stands with people that you’ve been around for long periods of time and just enjoying something that you commonly like.”
“If you’re a season ticket holder at a club, or you go to games and see people you recognize, you realize in other walks of like, you probably would have never met these people. You would never converse with them. The fact that you got to do that again, and connect with people in person, I think that joy is just going to carry us for the rest of the year.”