Thanks to the Montreal Impact, Canada now owns an actual pro soccer championship.
Hearty congratulations to the Montreal Impact, who packed almost 14,000 delighted souls into the Centre Claude Robillard the other night, and knocked off the Seattle Sounders 2-0 to win the A-League championship.
This is the happiest moment in Canadian pro soccer in a long, long time. The Impact, who have come up painfully and dramatically short in the past, had been improving dramatically in recent times, playing to larger and larger crowds.
And now, they're number one.
Okay, it's a small pond. But any big fish that can put on a maple leaf and kick a soccer ball is news in these glory-starved days. And we were that close to an all-Canadian final. The Vancouver Whitecaps, who finished second in the A-League's western conference, were upset 2-1 over two games by surprising Seattle.
So as coach Nick Desantis and his troops gleefully parade their hard-earned, genuinely good-looking trophy, let us pause to assess what this championship means in the larger effort to rebuild pro soccer in Canada.
There are probably as many different theories about growing the beautiful game in Canada as there are soccer fans here. Ever since the Canadian Soccer League collapsed in the mid-nineties, there has only been one serious attempt to replace it. For about a dozen good and unalterable reasons, it went nowhere.
In the meantime, the Impact, Whitecaps and Toronto Lynx set up shop in the A-League, essentially the second division of North American soccer, even though the standard of play is far below the global standard for the second tier. And these teams - along with the Calgary Mustangs and whatever actually survives out of the Edmonton Aviators disaster - have quietly and unassumingly kept going, playing pro in a country that resolutely doesn't care.
To me, the biggest factor that can change all this is sheer excitement. People won't care about soccer because soccer fans tell them to. It amazes me how many Canadian soccer fans still don't get this. Our fans have a huge, burning passion for the game, but that doesn't generate new footy enthusiasts.
People become soccer fans when the game excites them. And most days, in our home and native land, that just doesn't happen.
Just at the moment, though, the Impact are the exception. 14,000 fans for a minor-league game in Montreal! Awesome! And they got to see the home team score a couple of delicious goals, and run around the field with an honest-to-gosh championship mug.
Okay, so they won't all be back the next time the Syracuse Salty Dogs or Milwaukee Wave United roll into town, but the Impact had already proven they could haul in 7,000 just for showing up, and that number should rise nicely when their title defence kicks off next spring.
But is it going to change anything nationally? Montreal has a good and growing soccer rivalry with Rochester, New York, but wouldn't this be a great time for Montreal and Toronto to start snarling at each other? Well, that's going to be a harder sell.
All right, I admit I probably haven't given the A-League enough attention over the years. I am probably guilty of letting a strong personal and professional dislike for Lynx honcho Nicole Hartrell keep me out of the pressbox at Centennial Park. It's a factor. I admit it. I also admit the Hartrells have done a commendable job of keeping soccer alive in my hometown. It's time to write a piece or two about the Lynx. That's my intention for next summer.
But the Lynx still aren't a very good team, and I'm seriously unsure that Montreal's championship is going to make the Impact any kind of a gate attraction in Toronto. But what the heck? Let's give it a go.
More importantly, the Impact have to go all-out for a repeat title next year. And the Whitecaps need to close the deal in the semifinals, and get all the way to the title game - at least. Championship-caliber teams at both ends of the continent is a great step forward. If the Lynx can ride that to any kind of increase relevance - or start threatening to win a title themselves - we may yet be getting somewhere.
The other subtext here, of course, is the persistent rumour that all may not be well with the much-hyped new soccer stadium for Toronto. The University of Toronto, which has pledged to fund huge portions of the project through alumni funding, remains ominously quiet on the subject, even though the federal government is ready to turn on the money hose. Such silences are not rare: I grew up on the U of T campus, and can show you several places where the University tore down houses to make way for new facilities that were never built. The vacant lots are all still there, decades later.
New Varsity Stadium is rumoured to already be the focus of a very real plan to bring Major League Soccer north of the border. Many of us hope that would amount to a revival of the old North American Soccer League, which thousands of us could bore you to death about any time, any place, ever. If that dream falls apart, the A-League will continue to be all the men's pro soccer we'll be getting up here for a long, long time.
What is certain, however, is that the Montreal Impact are the best second-division soccer team in any part of North America that isn't Mexico, and the Vancouver Whitecaps are not far behind.
It's a big step forward.
But there's still a huge and daunting distance left to go.