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Official Review by Robbie Raskin, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Toronto FC of Major League Soccer have made a habit lately of spending big dollars on bringing in international talent. And they can, as they have deep pockets lined by a large and passionate fan base and, more importantly, ownership by the multi-billion dollar Maple Leafs conglomerate. However, MLS has a salary cap and Toronto FC have only been able to bring in a handful of global stars each year, forcing them to focus on developing talent traditionally, at home.
With that philosophy in mind, during Spring 2015 Toronto FC created a development side in the United Soccer League to act as the top level in their thorough development system, which includes one of the best training facilities in the world - KIA Training Ground, which is utilised by players from clubs like Roma, Tottenham, and Sunderland. The new USL side needed a stadium, so with $5 million, the first stages of the new Ontario Soccer Centre were built just in time to give a home to the fledgling team.
The new team is known appropriately as TFC2 and is often the last stop for rising young players who have come up through the Toronto system before they appear in the MLS. So far, in their first season, TFC2 are still establishing their role in the development process and more importantly settling into their role as a club within the USL.
TFC2 can still call their home ground a work in progress. At the moment, the skeleton of a good football facility is there but on short notice, the stadium is still mainly just a simple bleacher setup. Located in Vaughan, a soccer-mad suburb just north of Toronto, the organisation benefits from proximity to the KIA Training Ground nearby as well as passionate local support.
Toronto FC and partners The City of Vaughan and the Ontario Soccer Association have plans to add a permanent stand and press box where the current bleacher stand exists, then add another stand opposite, bringing the capacity to 3 500 and then 5 000 in two years.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
For such a simple and temporary setup at the moment, fans can still enjoy a surprisingly good variety of concession options.
At the entrance to the grounds is a large tent with the main sandwich stand offering up a decent selection of fresh sandwiches like chicken, egg, or avocado salad. There are also hot dogs, sausages, and Jamaican beef patties of various spiciness. Drinks here are choices of soft drinks, sports drinks like Gatorade, or water. There is not currently alcohol available at the grounds, though that may change in the future.
Alongside is also a poutine stand, serving the ever-popular Canadian favourite of french fries, meaty gravy, and cheese curds with various toppings.
Finally, there is an ice cream van parked at the entrance as well, providing a sweet and refreshing option for warm summer nights.
The club also brings in various local restaurants to sample their options. During the evening of this particular reviewed match, Paramount Middle Eastern restaurant provided free, meal-sized samples of falafel, shawarma, pita, and hummus.
In addition to all these options in the stadium proper, within the field house next door is the Penalty Kicks pub, offering pub fare, pastas, and the all-important pre-match pint or a glass of wine.
At the moment, Ontario Soccer Centre is definitely a work in progress. The ground currently consists of one long bleacher down the west end of the pitch surrounded by a paid enclosure for fans to wander. The pitch is in front, with a large field house at the north end of the ground. While still very temporary, everything works well and the process is smooth. Fans enter through a gate into a broad forecourt before heading up to the general admission seating area. Food is located at the entrance forecourt. The scoreboard is simple but new and clear, showing the remaining time and the score.
The pitch is high-quality and well-lit. At night, surrounded by forest and darkened recreational fields, the stadium can be a welcoming and cozy place. Still, there is certainly work to be done, as is planned, before the stadium can really be called more of a stadium and score higher in this section. It seems quite likely that the atmosphere score will go much higher when the planned work is completed.
Ontario Soccer Centre is also a sprawling training facility and a lot of space is taken up by the numerous athletic fields. To the east is conservation land and the Humber River ravine; beautiful for a walk but not if you are looking for neighbourhood amenities. The areas to the south and west are still largely industrial but to the north, new development is springing up, bringing with it new opportunities to dine and shop.
The neighbourhood to the north is known as Woodbridge and is considered to be the capital of soccer in the province if not the country. In the charming and historic town centre just a couple minutes away by car, there are some nice options like New Hot Pot for Chinese. For an upscale Italian evening, try Il Cavalino, Centro Piazza, or Dimmi Trattoria. Sweetz is a bistro-cafe, while Memphis Grill is highly touted for Southern BBQ fare. At the north end of the neighbourhood is the popular St Phillips Bakery, an important part of the neighbourhood.
Toronto FC is known for its loyal and passionate support, something MLS President Don Garber has credited with reinventing and popularizing the league to fans south of the border and this does trickle down a little bit to TFC2. The atmosphere from the fans at Ontario Soccer Centre can vary day to day, depending on opponent and if the big club played that day. The specific match we reviewed was played the same night as a Toronto FC match in MLS and so the supporters' groups, with their flags and chanting, were occupied at BMO Field, depriving the atmosphere in Vaughan of an extra boost. However, on other nights, the southern end of the bleachers are generally occupied by raucous fans singing and waving flags. The rest of the gathered crowd are more family oriented but still join in on the odd chant or song, as well as being particularly knowledgeable and passionate about the sport and the team. Attendance is still on the rise, with plenty of work still to be done, as the average is still only in the high hundreds. For matches against teams from the US, the attendance will not be quite the same as the derby against Montreal, for example, where the atmosphere is increased by several notches.
Ontario Soccer Centre is easy enough to get to by car, located along Martin Grove Road near Highway 7. There is a decent amount of free parking next to the ground and traffic does not back up too much entering or leaving as there are multiple access drives to the lot. Using public transit, there is a bus stop along Martin Grove, from where one would walk two minutes to the ground. Alternatively, use the VIVA bus rapid transit system along Highway 7 and, if relatively familiar with the area, walk south past the condominium developments and toward the ground.
Within the stadium, there are more than enough outhouses lined up on either end of the grandstand, which are kept clean and never backed up. Handicap seating is also very plentiful and located in clean, central terraces with good views of the pitch.
All tickets are $12 and general admission, meaning fans can choose any seat for now. Toronto FC's deep academy system means the action on the pitch is usually good and there are no bad views from which to enjoy it. Free parking, very generous free food samples, and a good atmosphere make for a pleasant and enjoyable evening out at worst, and at best all the excitement of a derby for a low price.
Extra point for the good integration with the City of Vaughan. The first season-seat buyer was the mayor, and local businesses are highlighted every match. Local youth footballers are selected to be ballboys, and teams travel to the game together.
Extra point for the commitment by Toronto FC to supporting local soccer, having put lots of money into enhancing local fields.
Extra point for getting fans close to players; at the reviewed match, forward Mo Babouli was available to sign autographs after the match, as the club does after many matches.
Toronto FC2 are new to the USL and their new home was built quickly to get them playing. Still, throughout the season, the management has done an excellent job of creating a good environment to watch the Junior Reds in action. Over the next couple years, there will be wholesale improvements to the ground and it will be fun to return and see the changes year after year, as the facility becomes a proper, permanent stadium. For now, however, Ontario Soccer Centre is a perfectly enjoyable venue that provides everything needed for a pleasant evening out at the football, and a chance to see the rising stars of tomorrow for Toronto's beloved football club.
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8077 Islington Ave
Vaughn, ON L4L 7X7
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