TORONTO - Revolution general manager Craig Tornberg has witnessed Toronto FC's act before, but closer to home.
Canada's Major League Soccer entry is tied for last place in the league but has sold out almost every game at 20,000-seat BMO Field, including today's regular-season finale against the Revolution. Despite Toronto FC's 6-17-6 record, the team announced this week a renewal rate of 94 percent, plus a 5,000-fan waiting list for season tickets.
The numbers indicate a strong demand for professional soccer in Ontario. The difficult part of the equation is providing a competent team.
"I have a lot of empathy for where they are," Tornberg said yesterday. "We came out the blocks and the Revolution brand was strong. But I still remember losing the final game to Columbus, with the playoffs on the line, and more than 38,000 in the stands. Then, we started the next season with 57,000-plus in a doubleheader with the US national team. We rode the momentum for a short period of time. We kept losing games and that wears on the public. You can't control what happens on the field but the public's tolerance of losing goes only so far."
The Revolution's first season, 1996, was marked by strong attendance numbers and weak performances. Some Revolution teams were short on talent. Some lacked chemistry. Others were guided by coaches not up to the task.
Now, though, the Revolution appear to have the talent, togetherness, and tactical savvy to regularly contend for titles. They have not lost more than twice in succession since June 2004 and their record in the last three seasons is 43-23-27. The Revolution will be shooting for their third successive appearance at the MLS Cup when the playoffs kick off at New York next Saturday.
Along the way, the Revolution have reshaped their identity.
The Revolution were conceived as a battling team and, even in some of their worst moments, were able to turn games into a street scrap, stubbornly surrendering to teams with superior skill. Now, though, the Revolution combine finesse and technique with those fighting qualities.
Coach Steve Nicol has formed the Revolution as an attacking team in a 3-5-2 alignment, built around central defender Michael Parkhurst.
Parkhurst is probably the most cerebral professional defender the United States has produced in recent years. His speed and ability to read the game compensate for his size (5 feet 11 inches, 160 pounds) and are illustrated by the fact he has not committed more than one foul in a game since his debut in 2005.
Nicol, a top-level defender at Liverpool FC, stresses anticipation and mobility in his back line players. He wants his players to be in fighting trim - "You have to win the right to play" is a Nicol axiom - but he then wants the Revolution to move the ball quickly on the ground, and play the passing game that confounds opponents and once was a signature of Scotland, his native land.
By placing Parkhurst in the center of defense, Nicol has been able to load the midfield with five players. This scheme often sets up the Revolution midfield to overwhelm the opposition, which often goes with a more cautious 4-4-2 approach.
The Revolution have several emblematic players - Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman. But Parkhurst is the symbol that relates to the origins of the Revolution and to the team's future.
When Parkhurst was 12, he attended the Revolution's inaugural home game at Foxboro Stadium and immediately decided he would become a professional soccer player. Parkhurst developed a sophisticated approach to the game; instead of outmuscling foes, he decided to outthink them.
That quality was what Nicol was seeking and he selected Parkhurst in the first round of the 2005 draft, confounding observers.
Parkhurst in defense and Ralston in midfield provide a subtle balance to the aggressive marking of outside backs Jay Heaps and Avery John, the physical midfield play of Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz, the hammer-like strikes of Twellman.
Nicol has gathered a group of players with common interests and mutual goals. The stability that Nicol strives for is reflected in a Revolution team with a camaraderie that is becoming reminiscent of Nicol's Liverpool FC teams in the 1980s and '90s.
The contract extensions recently received by Heaps, 31, and Joseph, 29, indicate the Revolution's commitment to the core group of players.
"The way the coaching staff has handled things and the consistency with these players shows in the way they play and the way they address the community," Tornberg said. "There is an identification with these guys and they are bonding with the community. Many of them are coaching teams in the area, they go to the same restaurants, and they are becoming part of the fabric of the community.
"There is a tremendous awareness of who we are and what we are all about. Have we turned the corner? I remember 12 years ago going to talk to a group of high school all-stars in central Massachusetts and they had no clue what we were about. It's light-years from that to where we are now. We are still a work in progress but there is a tremendous upside. Getting more than 20,000 out to our last game [a 3-2 loss to Columbus last week] and possibly getting 20,000 to our playoff game [Nov. 3] gives us momentum. Should the day come when we have our own building, those numbers would fill a stadium the size of Toronto's, and that's getting toward the critical mass we would like to have."
Along with the positives, the Revolution are still lacking a win in the MLS Cup. Three appearances in the league's title game have resulted in three defeats.
"It's the one elusive trophy, the one that weighs heavily on us," Tornberg said. "The players and the fans, everyone in the organization, really want it. It's a matter of time. Only one team in a league built for parity can win that trophy. Soccer is a very cruel sport and the best team on the day doesn't always win. I've seen this team go to five finals [three MLS Cups, two US Open Cups] and a lot of variables enter into it. But this team is talented enough to win it."