TORONTO â€” As Toronto FC’s first signing and captain, it was Jim Brennan’s honour to lead the fledgling Major League Soccer franchise out for the first time.
Having played in England for Bristol City, Nottingham Forest, Norwich City and Southampton, the native of Newmarket, Ont., was no stranger to marquee moments. But his emotions were running high for Toronto’s MLS debut on April 7, 2007, against Chivas USA in Carson, Calif.
“It was a lot of excitement, especially for the local guys because we wore that jersey with pride, representing Toronto,” Brennan recalled. “A lot of us were born in this city so it meant an awful lot.”
“I remember walking out and thinking ‘OK, well this is it guys. Let’s get going and put on a show here,'” he added.
They did â€” at least for the first half. The new kids on the North American soccer block threatened early through strikers Alecko Eskandarian and Edson Buddle but went into halftime trailing 1-0 after a ball looped over the backline in the 35th minute resulted in Ante Razov’s 99th MLS goal.
Chivas took control in the second half and padded its lead in the 88th minute on a fine long-range shot from Sacha Kljestan, his first in the league.
“There wasn’t too much in the game,” recalled Welsh international midfielder Carl Robinson, now manager of the Vancouver Whitecaps. “I don’t think we deserved to lose 2-0 but we probably didn’t do enough to win the game based upon the 90 minutes.”
Chivas, which closed shop after the 2014 season, went on to finish first in the Western Conference with a 15-7-8 record. Toronto was last in the 13-team league with a 6-17-7 mark.
Like Brennan, MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum was filled with emotion as he watched TFC take its first steps.
“It’s hard to describe the pride we felt seeing a new team for our city take the field.” he said in an email. “There was also excitement and amazement that it had all come together and we were witnessing the birth of a new Toronto sports franchise.
“I think there was also some anxiety as we realized how much work was still ahead of us.”
It was new for everyone. In the broadcast booth, commentator Gerry Dobson referred to Toronto several times as Canada during the telecast.
In the stands, horns annoyingly droned throughout the game as a crowd of 14,351 saw Chivas spoil Toronto’s big night.
The Sportsnet game broadcast featured commercials for a pair of new movies: Will Ferrell’s “Blades of Glory” and Nicolas Cage’s “Next.” A sports update reported that a Kyle Wellwood goal had given the Maple Leafs a 6-5 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
Other Canadians wearing the somewhat drab grey Toronto jersey that night at the Home Depot Center were goalkeeper Greg Sutton and defenders Marco Reda and Miguel Canizalez. Defender Adam Braz came off the bench in the second half.
It was special for all of them.
Reda, from Woodbridge, Ont., had been playing in Norway but had written into his last contract that if a Canadian MLS team came along, he would be available for a free transfer.
“It was no-brainer for me,” said Reda.
“It was nice to come full circle for me because I had started my career in Toronto (with the Lynx) and I’d always wanted to see the game take off in the city,” he added.
For Sutton, it was a new MLS lease on life after seeing little action with Chicago, the MetroStars and Dallas in his first go-round.
“I don’t think we felt as much pressure going into that first game as we did in subsequent games … It was more just ‘All right, let’s just go out and enjoy it and see what happens,'” said the Hamilton-born ‘keeper.
The pressure would mount as Toronto lost its first four games including the home opener against Kansas City, outscored 10-0 during that stretch. It took more than a month before Danny Dichio’s historic goal ended the drought and sparked a 3-1 first-ever win over Chicago.
Looking back, there are some interesting notes that night against Chivas.
When Toronto coach Mo Johnston looked down at Chivas counterpart Predrag (Preki) Radosavljevic, he must have seen something he liked. Johnston, who was bumped up to manager of soccer after one season as head coach, eventually hired Preki as TFC’s fourth ever coach in November 2009.
The two were fired together in September 2010.
Toronto played a 3-5-2 against Chivas, a formation that the current edition of the team also uses.
Back then, Chivas goalkeeper Brad Guzan had hair.
Jesse Marsch, current New York Red Bulls coach, also started for Chivas that night. So did Honduran midfielder Amado Guevara, who would wear Toronto red the next two seasons and become a fan favourite for his slick skills.
Robinson, meanwhile, was directing traffic for Toronto.
“He was a manager before he was a manager,” said Canadian defender-midfielder Chris Pozniak, who was injured at the start of the season but went on to play 22 games for Toronto that first year. “You could see as soon as he came in. Within a week, he had a relationship with everybody on the squad as well as everybody at the club. He always spoke to everyone.
“And he was a good organizer. I learned a lot playing beside him. I remember a game in Houston where Mo Edu got sent off and I came on. We were under the gun the whole game but I learned more in that hour playing beside Carl tactically than throughout six prior years.”
Pozniak is now an assistant coach with Toronto FC 2, the team’s USL affiliate. Dichio coaches Toronto FC 3, the team’s top academy team.
Other original TFC players are giving back to local soccer. Brennan is executive director of Aurora FC, formerly known as the Aurora Youth Soccer Club, while Reda is the boys’ technical director at the Woodbridge Soccer Club.
While Toronto had the might of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment behind it, there were hiccups leading up to the Chivas game.
“They had all the pieces in place. They just didn’t do know who was doing what,” recalled Robinson, who came over from Norwich City. “Roles were clearly not defined exactly and Mo ended up doing probably four or five different roles within the organization as well as managing the team as well as being general manager as well as trying to find players as well as managing upstairs.”
“So it was a little bit disjointed but you could see there was huge potential there.”
Toronto unveiled Reda, Pozniak, Braz and Irish winger Ronnie O’Brien (who missed the Chivas game through injury) at a news conference 114 floors up at the CN Tower, where O’Brien confessed he didn’t like heights.
Finding a place to train sometimes was an issue with BMO Field hosting other events. So the player sometimes had to go by van to the Ontario Soccer Centre north of the city.
Injuries would spoil the season for Sutton, sidelined by a concussion. Reda played the year with a damaged knee that required surgery.
But both take pride in being TFC originals.
Toronto went on to experience more lean years on the field after the debut season. But while the team struggled on the field, it set a new standard for the league in terms of fan support.
The revolving door-approach to playing talent and the front office would finally end under president Bill Manning, GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney. Last season, Toronto came within one kick of winning the MLS Cup.
“As a franchise, TFC is a model club within MLS and that is something that was always an expectation of ours, as it is with all of our teams at MLSE,” Tanenbaum said. “To see the growth over the past few years, however, with the expansion of BMO Field and a season (ticket) seat base of 21,000 members is incredibly exciting and something that we are all very proud of.”
Brennan, Pozniak, Reda, Robinson and Sutton, among others, helped build that TFC foundation
“We were part of that first little group and now Michael Bradley and (Jozy) Altidore, (Jonathan) Osorio, (Sebastian) Giovinco and all these guys now, they take it to the next level,” said Brennan, who takes pride in seeing his kids wearing Toronto jerseys these days.
“And then another 10 years down the line, then the next group comes in and they keep building and building and building until you know you build a culture and a history â€” something that’s going to be around for the next few hundred years.”
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press