Move over hockey, soccer’s taking center stage in March.
It doesn’t matter that it’s too cold to play the beautiful game outdoors. Aside from the Toronto Raptors having their best season, it’s about a sport having meaningful action at the club and national levels.
March has traditionally been a month where most Canadian NHL teams are in the heat of battle for playoff spots, but this year’s totally different. It’ll be the first time since 1970 that no Canadian teams make the playoffs. This unusual phenomenon has all kinds of implications, one being opening the door for soccer.
While most fans won’t abandon their hockey allegiances, they still love a winner. The Canadian NHL teams haven’t been that this year. Fans have more to gain from seeing telling action on the pitch instead of veiled tanking on the ice.
MLS kicked off for Canada’s three improving teams, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact on Sunday. But the men’s national team will play the most anticipated soccer this month in its bid to reach the 2018 World Cup.
Canada beat Honduras, tied El Salvador and now faces the top team in the region and perennial World Cup participant Mexico twice in five days—in Vancouver on the 25th and in Mexico on the 29th. Over 40,000 tickets have already been sold for B.C. Place.
Depending on how it does against Mexico, Canada could almost assure qualification for the “Hex,” the six-team tournament from which teams can directly qualify for the World Cup. Canada hasn’t reached the Hex in the last four World Cup qualification campaigns.
Big Road Wins
And while it’s just one game, Toronto FC and Montreal Impact gave their fan bases plenty to cheer about. Vancouver’s fan base needs to have patience, but there’s good reason to have it.
The three Canadian MLS teams made the playoffs last year and should be expected to do so again this year.
The Whitecaps’ fan base purchased 15,500 season tickets and a sellout crowd of 22,120 attended the season opener at B.C. Place—a hard-fought 3–2 loss to Montreal. The Caps lost last season’s home opener as well—to Toronto—but rebounded to finish second in the more competitive Western Conference.
Montreal didn’t even have their talismanic striker Didier Drogba, who scored 11 goals in 11 games last year.
Drogba’s effect last year can’t be overstated as he single-handedly dragged Montreal into the playoffs and sold out Stade Saputo game after game.
The Impact are not a one-man team—unlike their hockey counterparts the Canadiens.
But it was TFC that gave its fans the biggest thrill when they pulled off the shock upset of the weekend—a 2–0 win over the New York Red Bulls, owners of the best regular season record in 2015.
TFC, long known for its porous defense, made a big upgrade in goal with Clint Irwin. He was the difference when called upon as New York dominated the match.
The MLS season, including playoffs, runs nine months. There will be plenty of twists and turns, but for now, there’s reason for optimism. No team in the parity-filled league with its nearly all-inclusive playoff format can really disappoint in March. Instead, it’s a time to see new talent and appreciate some goals and wins.
And not to be forgotten, the momentum for women’s soccer is alive and well. Following its quarterfinal run at last year’s Women’s World Cup, the Canadian women’s national team convincingly qualified for the summer Olympics in Rio last month.
Since then, the Canadian women have kept busy, reaching, for the first time in the team’s history, the final of the Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal. Canada takes on Brazil on Weds. March 9.
It’s going to be an unusual March for the typical Canadian sports fan. The steady pillar of hockey has crumbled and the balance has tipped in favour of soccer.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports