FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When Toronto FC became Major League Soccer’s 13th team in 2007, the Revolution instantly gained another Eastern Conference rival in the northeast.
Considering Toronto’s short geographical distance from Foxborough – approximately 425 miles – it was assumed that TFC would immediately join the likes of D.C. United, the New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire on the list of clubs most fervently reviled by Revs fans.
But it’s commonly accepted that the series between two teams must be tightly contested for a true rivalry to develop, much in the way that the Revs and Fire have split eight postseason series evenly with four victories apiece.
That wasn’t the case in the early meetings between New England and Toronto. During the course of the first two years of the series (2007-08), the clubs met five times – all in the regular season – and the results were heavily one-sided. The Revs rolled to an undefeated 3-0-2 record against TFC in those first two years, outscoring their Canadian opponent by a 12-4 margin.
The tenor of the matchup between the Revolution and Toronto changed on May 23, 2009, however, when a much-improved TFC side earned its’ first-ever victory over the Revs. Not only that, but it was a decisive win for the only MLS team north of the border, as a pair of goals from Amado Guevara and an additional strike from Dwayne De Rosario cancelled out Shalrie Joseph’s opening goal and led Toronto to a 3-1 victory at BMO Field.
A little more than two months later on Aug. 1, 2009, TFC’s progression continued when the club picked up its first road point in the series with a 1-1 draw at Gillette Stadium. Again it was De Rosario – a Canada international who was acquired from the Houston Dynamo prior to the 2009 season – who got on the score sheet for Toronto.
While the addition of one player can only go so far to turn an entire club’s fortunes around, it’s safe to say that De Rosario’s first year in Toronto was a smashing success both on and off the field.
Besides the crowds he draws simply because of his Canadian heritage, it helps that he’s one of the most dangerous attacking players in the league.
“He’s just a dynamic player,” said Pat Phelan, who has started in central midfield the first two games of the season. “You never really know what he’s going to do on the ball. He’s not really a forward and he’s not really a midfielder – he’s kind of one of those guys who can float around and just makes plays.”
Phelan knows plenty about TFC, the club which drafted him 10th overall in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft out of Wake Forest. Although didn’t see one minute of action for Toronto’s first team before being traded to the Revolution in June of 2008, he witnessed first-hand the beginning of the club’s turnaround.
“It definitely takes a couple of years to work your way up in this league,” Phelan said. “Obviously, they struggled as most expansion teams do – there are a couple of exceptions – but there’s great fan support up there and they’ve struggled to find the right group of players.”
“But, last year was much improved,” he continued. “I know they were disappointed not to make the playoffs, but they made a good run at it and I think they can build off that this year.”
The addition of De Rosario began a shift for TFC, which scored a club-record 37 goals and established itself as a dangerous attacking team in 2009. De Rosario contributed 11 of Toronto’s goals last season, becoming the first TFC player to register a double-digit goal total in a single season.
That progression continued this past offseason when Toronto named Preki the club’s new head coach. A clever attacking player in his playing days – he finished his MLS career with 79 goals and 112 assists in 10 seasons with the Kansas City Wizards and Miami Fusion – Preki compiled a record of 40-29-21 in three years as the head coach of Chivas USA.
While Preki certainly brings an attacking intent north of the border, Revolution head coach Steve Nicol believes that it’s the organization of Preki-coached teams which makes them so difficult to play against.
“They’re always organized, that’s for sure,” Nicol said. “They won’t give us anything for nothing. We’re going to have to work for everything we get, which we expect to do.”
For Nicol, the rivalry with Toronto has a little extra spark – but that has more to do with a personal relationship than proximity between the club’s home stadiums.
Nicol spent years playing alongside Toronto’s Director of Soccer, Mo Johnston, with the Scotland National Team. The pair frequently gets together after matches between their MLS clubs, regardless of the result.
“I’ve known him for longer than I care to tell you,” Nicol said with a chuckle. “It’s always good to see him and we always have a laugh. But usually one of us has lost at the end of the day – there’s not too many draws between the teams – so hopefully he’s pretty quiet Saturday night.”