Contrived. Worthless. Lame. These and other words rang in my head as I set on a bus bound for BMO Field in Toronto on September 13th, 2008.
It was nine in the morning, and already, I had downed three or four Champagnes of Beers. Our bus departed from Crew Stadium dark and early at 6 AM, for a trip that I hoped would help me forget about the residual cynicism that accumulates in a person when they work at a national call center for product complaints. So far, it wasn't happening. All I could think about was the stack of automotive service centers I would be calling the following Monday. I looked back at one of the many coolers on the bus, stocked with beer, and thought about how early it was.
A voice from the back of the bus jolted me. "Hey, what's this damn trophy we're playing for anyway?"
That trophy, called the Trillium Cup, was not part of the reason I decided to go on this bus trip. As much as MLS desperately wanted a rivalry for their hot new trophy franchise, Toronto F.C., the best they could come up with was the Trill - a trophy named for a shared state/province wildflower of the same name.
Contrived. Worthless. Lame. Welcome to MLS.
I can't speak for others, but the thought of a trophy that existed before an actual rivalry had developed gave me all the nostalgia and chills of a humid August Thursday.
Yet, there I was on a bus loaded with Crew fans, heading to Toronto, our "rivals." We talked about the TFC fans that came to Crew Stadium earlier in the season, about the team, about whether or not we would get through customs quickly. No one knew much of what to expect about any of the three.
The game, you might remember, was a rainy, windy, and damp contest. It featured Alejandro Moreno flubbing his penalty, only to be later bailed out by Pat Noonan, who put in a clinical goal from the edge of the box to get the Crew a 1-1 tie, and ultimately, first grasp of the Trillium Cup. We Crew fans waited patiently in the stands, as some of the Crew players gave a wave or a thumbs up to the 100 or so of us in attendance. Danny O'Rourke held the Cup up to our group, but then too left the field.
Meanwhile, we kept waiting, as security said it was their policy to let the parking lots thin out before they take out visiting fan groups.
Finally, 30 minutes after the game, we were escorted by stadium security to a gate, which oddly enough, was surrounded by a small crowd of - enthusiastic, we'll call them - Toronto fans, who seemed hell bent on shouting obscenities at us. It was like a message board had come alive, but without all of the dignity and temperance you typically see on the internet...
To their credit, the BMO Field officials thought better of letting a group of Crew supporters wander out of the gate that featured a mostly-intoxicated mob of TFC fans with nothing better to do than wait for visiting fans to leave. Unfortunately, the action plan BMO Field officials came up with - walking said group of Crew fans down to another gate, and releasing us into the mob that inevitably followed - proved to be one of the dumber moments in all of crowd management history.
Naturally, and in my opinion, sadly, multiple fights broke out. Accounts vary as to who pushed whom first, but from what I could piece together, an accusation of a scarf being stolen was made, which was followed by a retributive scarf-stealing. In between, voices rose, punches were thrown, bodies hit the pavement, and our Charter Bus of Solitude suddenly looked like it was a mile away.
I can't claim to be an unbiased journalist in this skirmish - right or wrong, I felt the group that I was in was needlessly targeted, and my primary goal became getting the entire group back on the bus quickly. Looking back in a more sober light, I remain thankful the few shoving matches that broke out didn't end up turning more violent than they were. In large part, I believe the situation de-escalated quickly because of the Toronto Police, who stepped in very quickly once things boiled over.
I don't tell you this story to brand TFC fans in a bad light: There are unsavory elements in every single fan base in sports, and on this day, we encountered the very small minority of TFC fans that feel it is appropriate to fight over the shirt color worn by another person. Instead, I hope you will better understand why on September 13th, 2008, Columbus Crew fans got a police escort through downtown Toronto.
As hundreds of Toronto residents looked on, no doubt wondering what important dignitaries were getting the royal treatment on a Saturday afternoon, our bus was temporarily a frat house on wheels, with nearly everyone's rowdiness level escalated by cold suds and adrenaline. By the time we were dropped off at the hotel, many of us were covered in beer and sweat, and grinning ear to ear.
And, oh that hotel. The Renaissance Toronto Downtown Hotel is spectacular, in part because it is the only hotel in the world that is attached to a major league sports arena (The Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays). I happened to be staying in a room that overlooked the outfield wall. It also happened to be the hotel that the Crew were staying in as well for the evening, which, with a 2pm kickoff, was still plenty young.
As we all convened in our rooms, the rumor started to spread that a few Crew players and staff were down at the hotel bar with the Trillium Cup. You remember - the fake, made-up, doesn’t-matter one.
I remember Gino Padula was there, because he helped me pour some beers into the bowl that sits atop the Trillium Cup. My memory is fuzzy beyond that, as is the photo of me drinking from this Trillium Cup. Someone snapped my picture with my cellphone. At least 50 others did the same before or after me. Nobody's bucket list should be complete without adding "drink alcohol from the cup of a recently won trophy" to it.
(Pro tip: Should you ever get to lift the Trillium Cup for any reason, be careful. That sucker is heavy. It is reportedly made of a mixture of concrete and bomb-shelter lead.)
Did I mention that I love the Trillium Cup?
Now, when I hear someone mention that the Trillium Cup is just a marketing tool, and that it has no real value, I get angry. Yes, the trophy's origins aren't the most genuine. But the Trillium Cup is an MLS trophy that is now forever stained with joyful tears and celebratory beers courtesy of the best fans in the league. It also was a part of the best season the Crew ever had. Ah memories.
If this trophy doesn’t hold any meaning for you, that's fine. But please, have the decency to keep your mouth shut around those of us for whom it does.