Professional soccer in Toronto traces its roots back to the early 20th century with the Toronto Scottish and the Toronto Ulster Football clubs.
Organized fan support wasn’t common here or anywhere else in the world during this time, so naturally it took several decades before it appeared. Compounding the problem was that Toronto had a multitude of professional soccer clubs playing in various leagues, that came and went. Supporting soccer in Toronto literally meant that you’d be supporting a new club every two to three years.
In terms of fan support, the sport always took a back seat to hockey, football and baseball. By the early 80’s the city witnessed the dawn of its soccer supporter culture, even if elements of it took cues from traditional North American sports.
Toronto Blizzard Booster Club, H-Block
Starting play in 1979, the Toronto Blizzard of the NASL gave birth to the Toronto Blizzard Booster Club. With the popularity of the Blizzard increasing, rising attendances also saw the rise of other supporters groups such as the H-Block, which was named after section H of Varsity Stadium. These “hardcore” fans were in part responsible for storming the pitch during the 1984 NASL Soccerbowl Series final.
In front of a crowd of nearly 17,000 the Toronto Blizzard were beaten by the Chicago Sting in game two of the best-of-three series by a score of 3-2. They lost the previous game in Chicago 2-1. The fans stormed the pitch, and disrupted the trophy ceremony which had to be held in the Chicago Sting locker. Ironically this game at Varsity Stadium was the last NASL game ever to be played.
The NASL collapsed in 1985 because of mismanagement, financial problems and a struggle between the outdoor and indoor game. With no league to play in, the Toronto Blizzard played friendlies as a touring side (Toronto INEX) for the 1985 season, and from 1986 to 1993 played in the Canadian Soccer League (CSL). Once the CSL folded, so did the Blizzard.
Toronto Lynx and the Toronto Ultras
Fast forward to 1996. Top flight professional soccer returned once again to Toronto. A trio of Toronto area businessmen paid a $50,000 expansion fee, and the Toronto Lynx were set to play in the 1997 A-League season. In its first year, the club made the A-League division semifinals. Average attendance was just over 1,500 fans per game.
Formation of the Ultras
By the 1999 season, the club was averaging nearly 2,000 fans per game at U of T’s Varsity Stadium, and excitement in the club was growing. This in turn attracted new fans, and by the year 2000, a small group of regulars started to gather in a corner of Varsity Stadium. In May of 2000, after a Trinidad and Tobago-Canada friendly at Varsity the Toronto Ultras were formed.
The national team game was the beginning of a real supporters movement of Toronto fans who wanted to change the way soccer games were enjoyed. They wanted to improve the atmosphere during soccer games in Toronto.
The Ultras felt it was long overdue to give Toronto soccer teams a true home field advantage, with their unique way (for North America at least) of supporting the club.
Through an online message board, the Ultras started to organize and recruit new members. Soon enough, chanting, drumming and the occasional flare or two was becoming common at Lynx games. Supporting the team from section U of Varsity Stadium, the Ultras were passionate about soccer, the club and about the players they supported.
Growth at Varsity Stadium
Within a few months, the first road-trips were organized. One of the first was one into New York State to see the Lynx play the Rochester Raging Rhinos in the 2000 A-League semi-final. Despite losing, the Ultras continued to grow in the following months.
More people were brought into the fold at the Canada-Mexico friendly in November, and along with promotion and the creation of their own website, the Toronto Ultras began to attract new members.
This small Toronto group soon became one of the A-League’s most vocal and hardcore supporters. By the 2001 season, the group nearly tripled in size, and unveiled a giant black, yellow and white supporters banner during their games. That year, the Toronto Lynx managed to get their highest average attendance ever, with an average of 2,795 fans per game.
Varsity Stadium was in need of dire repairs. The east stand was long blocked off for fan access and the aging structure cost the University more money than it brought in. It was decided to close the stadium in late 2001, so that was the last season for the Lynx at the historic U of T venue.
Move to Centennial Stadium and decline
The Toronto Lynx moved to Etobicoke’s Centennial Stadium for the 2002 season, but things were just never the same, and the attendance and success of the club began to decline. Compounding the problem was the fact that Centennial Stadium had to be renovated and a new pitch needed to be installed, so some of the games were played at York Stadium.
Average attendance plummeted in 2002 by over 1,000 fans to 1,730 per game. Soon enough with a change in leadership the Toronto Ultras were renamed to U-Sector, and in 2006 an MLS franchise was awarded to MLSE.
The 2006 season, was the last for the Toronto Lynx in the USL First Division. Toronto FC was begin to play in the 2007 MLS season, and a new era for top-league professional soccer in Toronto had begun.