Opinion: In the Fell Clutch of Circumstance, We Are United
While York United has urged calmness following its sale, from the very beginning storms have raged around the club.
Looking back, one would say perhaps it was an omen of times to come – York struggled in the deluge, fans were slender in the grandstand, and Forge showed the grit and determination that would serve them so well on those beautiful CONCACAF nights yet to come.
York’s ongoing challenges have certainly been apparent as a reporter there, but also York’s struggles are deeply personal for a few reasons. The start of Canadian Premier League’s fifth season was also the start of my fifth year as a regular soccer reporter; our league has opened doors and opportunities for me and many others as polished sportswriters (and sportsworkers) that would never have been possible otherwise.
Ironically enough, my association with York Lions Stadium long precedes York United — I am a York University Alumni, and served on the York University Board of Governors a decade ago when we approved this stadium for the PanAm Games. Back then, no-one felt that our campus stadium would ever be called home by a professional team. I, and others, remain so fortunate that it did.
On October 24, 2019 I wrote at the end of my first league season: ‘like any new project, the Canadian Premier League will grow and change in the years to come. Whatever happens though, it will be in response to the needs of Canadians – a fact worth proudly standing on guard for.”‘
In the last five years, certain CanPL clubs have met local needs and built especially deep roots in their communities, as the beautiful game has spread from coast to coast…while one of their inaugural company has sadly faded away.
Before I wrote this piece as the news of York United’s sale to the CSB first broke, I called an old friend of my mother’s. Her name is Fay. She lives a six minutes drive (seven minutes by bike, or twenty minutes by transit, from York Lions Stadium. The local Jane and Finch neighborhood has over 50,000+ people within a few square kilometers). So I asked this neighbourhood resident a few questions:
NT: Do you know what York United is?
Fay: No, I don’t.
NT: They are a pro soccer team and they play at York University’s York Lions Stadium.
Fay: Oh, I don’t go there, and have never heard of them.
NT: How much would you say is fair for a pro soccer game ticket?
Fay: Around $30.
In the wake of this week’s sale news, social media has been rife with summary solutions – from ‘move the team’, to ‘why don’t they play in a stadium in vast York Region or closer to downtown Toronto in Lamport Stadium’ – all with the fact that there are huge, vibrant local neighborhoods of hundreds of thousands in North Toronto who are once again being forgotten. The tickets are not too expensive for the local community to afford (nor should they be). Rather, while the ROM and the CN Tower and downtown food spots may be symbols of Toronto at large, the outlines of Downsview Park, Black Creek Farm, and the San Romanoway towers would mean much more to local residents as those icons of downtown are not an hour away by transit.
So as tough as this week’s news has been, I am filled with hope. Why? Because I have seen what York United could be. Since becoming a soccer reporter, I’ve had the pleasure to cover multiple Canadian Premier League finals, see Forge score at the Azteca, and appreciate the magic and indigenous reconciliation that Pacific and their fans have brought to Vancouver Island. Yet, my favorite match of all time remains the day Montreal came to York University – and York9 put on a show in front of our delighted crowd. Why? Because it was a truly special moment in ‘my house’ – and little else can replicate that magic.
In 2021, when York University transformed York Lions Stadium into a multi-purpose facility, Toronto.com covered the opening and captured these quotes:
York University head soccer coach Carmine Isacco stressed the stadium should also welcome youth from the nearby Jane and Finch community who don’t have the means to train at a high-performance facility.
“We need to have outreach programs through (York University) that help nurture athletes in kind of our inner city,” he has said. Richard Asante, a former Toronto FC and Canada U-20 player who runs a soccer academy for children and youth in the region, said he hopes the renovated facility will become available to groups such as his.
“Being able to train on turf, on a proper facility with lights, that changes the experience, something that they’ve never had before. So, it’s an exciting time, and it’s something to look forward to,” he said. “It’ll be walking distance for most of the kids, which changes everything, so more parents, grandparents can all come out and watch them play, watch them train.”
To my knowledge, none of that bridging has ever happened – a historical challenge York University shares with York United, who as a tenant have zero say in the matter. It’s one of the reasons the club has been seeking out a permanent stadium solution, and one of the reasons why the matchday experience at YLS is significantly lacking.
In 2000 Nelson Mandela said, “Sports has the power to change the world. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.” His use of rugby to begin to forge symbolic unity certainly did not heal all divisions as South Africa won the 1995 World Cup Finals against New Zealand, but it inspired an example of unity in Mandela’s pursuit of a “rainbow nation at peace with itself;” an ongoing project of national reconciliation.
On opening day five years ago, that spring storm eventually gave way to a beautiful rainbow. Likewise, I believe hope and a bright future for York United – even in it’s current home – is warranted, whether it has CSB or a new buyer at the helm. I believe that a covenant with the local community must be established to co-create a renewed institution that will nourish United as club, and deliver joy and exhilaration by design that will long resonate within the soul of the peoples proud to call North Toronto home.