There’s no rivalry on the field, but both cities are growing quickly — on the field and off it.
Despite no sports rivalry to speak of, Seattle and Toronto share ample commonalities on and off the pitch.
They’re among the continent’s fastest growing and most expensive cities, with two of the premier Major League Soccer franchises. And both have lately celebrated precious few professional sports championships on a North American stage.
In 50 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs won their last Stanley Cup, both cities have just two major sports titles apiece: two World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993 and an NBA title for the SuperSonics in 1979 and a Super Bowl win for the Seahawks in 2013.
Perhaps that’s why Saturday’s MLS Cup match between the Sounders and Toronto FC is generating such buzz in the Queen City.
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“I haven’t seen anything this hot a ticket in this town in years — and that includes the Raptors and the playoff run we had earlier this year,’’ said Dave Hopkinson, chief operations officer for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns Toronto FC and the aforementioned Raptors and Maple Leafs.
Much like Seattle with the Sounders, Seahawks and Huskies all contending, Hopkinson feels Toronto is also undergoing a sports renaissance.
The Raptors nearly made the NBA Finals last spring. The Blue Jays were in back-to-back American League Championship Series, and even the beloved-but-perennially-underperforming “Leafs” are riding youthful optimism with No. 1 overall draft pick Auston Matthews.
But it’s the MLS team playing for a title.
And that hasn’t gone unnoticed in a city long described by Canadians as being as “Americanized” as it gets. Torontonians pride themselves on a “world class” city they feel rivals New York, London or Paris.
But critics have long suggested Toronto sometimes focuses too much on what others think — especially south of the border. And that some of that may have seeped into the city’s sports consciousness.
Like Seattle, Toronto real estate has soared to top-10 North American levels due to unprecedented population growth.
But unlike Seattle’s growth, foreign immigration mostly caused Toronto’s population to recently surpass 2.8 million — supplanting Chicago as North America’s fourth-largest city — while its greater metropolitan area now exceeds 6.6 million. Toronto is the world’s most ethnically diverse city, with 51 percent of residents born outside of Canada.
“They were born somewhere else, and in a lot of the countries from which they came, soccer is a much bigger game than it is in Canada,’’ Toronto Mayor John Tory said.
Once the CFL’s commissioner and also president and CEO of Blue Jays owner Rogers Communications, Tory sees a definite shift to where Toronto FC is joining the city’s mainstream sports culture.
“The vast change in demographics, the advent of some genuine, recognizable stars into the MLS … I think has created an extremely loyal fan base that’s big enough to fill that stadium,’’ Tory said. “They tend to be people extremely enthusiastic about soccer, about Toronto FC and about sports. As a result, it’s just created a real buzz in town about how well they’ve done.’’
Toronto FC has 18,000 season-ticket holders — more than any of the city’s other pro teams. Last year’s addition of Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus in Italy galvanized the city’s huge Italian population comprising 9.2 percent of its population.
Toronto FC had been a hit with fans since joining MLS in 2007, just like the Sounders starting in 2009. But unlike the Sounders, Toronto FC floundered on the field until just the last season or two.
That changed after Tim Leiweke became president and CEO of Toronto FC’s parent MLSE company in 2013 and embarked on a major financial infusion. Star players like Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have since been imported. BMO Field underwent a two-year, two-phase $120 million overhaul in which 8,400 seats were added, and the venue became unrecognizable.
Leiweke modeled Toronto FC partly after the Sounders, which his brother, Tod, helped launch as then-Seahawks president. Back then, Tim Leiweke headed up AEG, owner of the Los Angeles Galaxy, and introduced members of the Sounders ownership group.
He took parts of Sounders culture to Toronto.
“We wanted to be one of the best franchises in the league,’’ Leiweke said. “We know (Sounders owners) Adrian (Hanauer) and Joe (Roth) and the guys at Seattle well. We were part of the process of introducing all of them when this all began. And so, we understand best in class, and Toronto had to be best in class.’’
MLSE operations head Hopkinson says Leiweke changed Toronto FC’s culture.
“We made a very focused decision to get in the business in a big way. And to go for the throat and to do everything we can to win.’’
They’ll try to win Saturday for a city embracing it like never before. All that’s in the way is a Sounders franchise from a Northwest city that — despite little sports history with Toronto — has enough commonality to make this feel like a shared journey despite all the differences.