MLS

2016 MLS Cup: Toronto city guide to soccer culture and fun

Getting ready to visit Toronto for this Saturday's MLS Cup final? (Reminder, the game's at 8 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. PT, and on TV on FOX and UniMás in the US, and TSN and RDS in Canada). Here's a guide to the soccer scene and beyond in the city.

SOCCER CULTURE


Toronto is very much a soccer city. It has every sort of major league team imaginable, but its diverse communities make for a particularly vibrant culture around the beautiful game.


Toronto FC matches, particularly of late, are packed and lively affairs. The club, in a sense, helps to unite parts of the city’s many soccer-loving communities on match days, while also providing a welcoming environment for supporters without preexisting attachments.


WHERE TO PLAY


Toronto FC, of course, play at BMO Field, at Exhibition Place, while the team trains at Downsview Park, about 25 minutes north of Toronto's downtown core.


  • Near the training facilities is the Hanger, an institution of its own, where pick up games and organized soccer co-exist side by side. The beaten down and broken square window exterior gives it a very FIFA Street feel, the kind of charm that only generations of wear and tear can give.
  • Meanwhile, Cherry Beach is where you go when you want to play some soccer on the edge of Lake Ontario, which is pretty much all the time.
  • Trinity-Bellwoods Park is a good place to stop for a kickabout before catching a match at BMO Field. Full-size pitches are scarce, but it’s a lovely park space for a pickup game between friends, and it's within walking distance of the stadium. Like all good places to play soccer, you can buy fish and chips across the street.
  • Regent Park Athletic Grounds, built with support from Toronto FC’s ownership group as part of a community revitalization program, offer the nicest pitch in Toronto’s immediate downtown.
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An image of the Regent Park Athletic Grounds revitalization project; via MLSE

LOCAL CUISINE


  • The Burger's Priest has, in previous versions of this guide, been called Toronto’s answer to In-N-Out, which is not untrue. But we're just going to be honest: the Burgers Priest, which was actually founded by a seminary school graduate, is better. Order something with "the Option" — a Portobello mushroom stuffed with cheese and fried so it oozes out — on it. Get extra napkins.
  • Phở Hưng is located on Spadina, in the heart of one of Toronto’s two Chinatowns, Phở Hưng has been dishing out satisfying bowls of Vietnamese fare for decades. Ahead of a chilly afternoon of soccer, it’s the perfect place to fortify yourself.
  • Bairrada Churrasqueira Grill’s real highlight is a hidden patio at its College Street location that goes on for kilometers, and is of absolutely no use in December. But the platters of grilled meat and seafood are good enough to justify going any day.
  • Federick Restaurant is, hands down, without a doubt, Toronto's best Chinese food joint, serving a unique brand of Hakka-style cuisine that's both spicy and insatiably delicious. It's a bit of a trek outside the city, but worth it.
  • Taste of the Danforth is a yearly festival in the city's Greek core and there are too many great places to pick in the Danforth area. A personal favorite of many is Pantheon.
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An offering at the Burger's Priest; image via the Burger's Priest on Facebook

SOCCER BARS


  • Real Sports Bar and Grill is the place to go and watch a soccer game; It features the best wings and the biggest TV in North America.
  • The Football Factory is Toronto’s original hub for soccer fans. This distinction may matter less now that the city’s soccer culture has grown, but it’s still festooned in TFC regalia and has any match you care about on TV. What more could you want?
  • Shoeless Joe's is most likely to come up in conversations with TFC fans, because it's the official home of the Red Patch Boys. It's the place to be before and after each match.
  • Scallywags is a reliable source of coverage for Toronto FC and MLS matches.

  • Honorable mentions:Wheat Sheaf TavernDuke of Gloucester

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The Football Factory; via Facebook

WHERE TO VISIT


  • Art Gallery of OntarioGet a little culture before watching some cultured feet at work. Designed by Frank Gehry, the AGO is perfect for art-lovers and those who distractedly walk through museums, as its design is often as captivating as the exhibits.
  • TIFF Lightbox: Why, you might ask, should one spend a few hours of a trip to Toronto in a darkened movie theater? Fair enough. But the Lightbox has good programming, including exhibits and a bookstore that make it worth the visit.
  • The Distillery District is worth checking out as there are a number of gastropubs, restaurants and little shops surrounding a whiskey factory from the 1800s. There's usually an event going on in the area, too, whether it's beer tasting, theater or art shows.
  • Casa Loma is a castle in the middle of a sprawling metropolis, the kind of place that a modern day Batman might call home. It's a great look into the city's past and there's plenty to take in, but make sure to keep an eye out for some of the many secret pathways and staircases, too.
  • The Air Canada Centre is the city's sporting heart, where fans of soccer can also check out a Toronto Maple Leafs or Toronto Raptors game. Come around playoff time for either team and, if they're in, the square outside is filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans, too.
  • Honorable mentions:Kensington Market, Ripley's Aquarium
  • Rookie mistake: The CN Tower is indeed very tall, and since you already know that there’s really no reason to bother with it.
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The Distillery District; image via Facebook

MATCHDAY


Toronto is a wonderful collaboration between several ethnic communities, so there's a little something for everyone on match day. The club's supporters often have a march to the stadium before the game, and it's the fans that make gameday unique. Toronto FC faithful changed the game in MLS, and that organic supporter feel is still very much present in the stands. Whether it's singing, chanting, bouncing or jeering, the people are what make a game in Toronto special. Oh, and that expansion at BMO Field is going to make the experience even better.

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BMO Field; photo by James Grossi

MATCHDAY TIPS:


  • Take public transit: The GO Train takes you to the Exhibition from Union Station. TTC Streetcars and buses also get the job done from various directions.
  • Bring a blanket, dress warm: BMO Field is just off Lake Ontario, which is a nice way of saying that a cool breeze blows over its bleachers on the best of days. Considering that it's now December, plan accordingly. Wear a jacket. Have something to put on your head. The people of Canada would also like you to know that some gloves make the sound of your clapping louder.
  • Have a post-match plan:  While BMO Field has many charms, there really isn’t anything to do at the Exhibition after a match. There’s plenty of entertainment within walking distance, but you’ll probably want a place to reconvene.
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