Mark Castator is not an average Toronto FC fan. Among the original fifty season ticket holders, the 41-year old lives and works in Victoria, British Columbia. He also pulled off an impressive double last week, attending TFC’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal second leg in Los Angeles and the Reds’ season opener in Seattle.
“A friend of mine went down to Dallas in October and got to see TFC qualify from the Champions League Group Stage. The envy of him seeing Toronto knock someone out on the road convinced me to come down for the quarterfinals,” Castator said from a pub in Seattle on Saturday. In Los Angeles, Castator was among about two-dozen TFC fans to witness Toronto’s stunning 2-1 victory and advancement to the semifinal round of the Champions League.
Traveling to support Toronto is not new for the U-Sector member. Prior to moving to the west coast, Castator visited Chicago, Montreal (for a Canadian Championship match) and New York. Though Reds’ fans visiting Columbus is one of the most famous (or infamous) instances of mass away travel by MLS supporters, Castator never made that trip. “I’m not much of a bus trip kind of guy. I did the bus trip to New York in 2007 and that almost killed me,” he explained.
Since relocating, MLS’s west coast expansion has given Castator the opportunity to visit several new grounds, all in support of his beloved Reds. Several trips to Seattle have been augmented by visits to Portland, Vancouver and now Los Angeles, omitting only San Jose on his ever-expanding list of away adventures. When asked which ground most reminds him of the vibrant, organic support at Toronto’s BMO Field, Castator says Portland and Seattle come closest. Of the newer grounds on the east coast, Philadelphia’s PPL Park and New York’s Red Bull Arena pique Castator’s interest for future trips.
Yet completing the nineteen-team league’s full list of grounds is not necessarily his goal. Says Castator, “I’m lucky to have the means that I can travel. So I’m going to support the team however I can. But the end goal is always supporting the team.” Having grown up with the Toronto Blizzard, watching the NASL team at Varsity Field prior to the club’s folding in 1984, soccer has always been a part of life in Castator’s Toronto. Yet despite his chosen supporters group having roots in the Toronto Lynx’s ten second division seasons, the local club was never of particular interest.
“TFC was the first team I said was ‘my team.’ I’m always going to be connected, even if I’m gone,” Castator explains. That devotion to the club leads him to fly back to Toronto four or five teams each season, in addition to his aforementioned North American travels. While family is also a draw, Castator makes the 2700 mile trek to BMO Field in order to see his Reds in person and to keep connected with his U-Sector friends.
Though there are three fully functioning supporters group at each TFC match, U-Sector, Red Patch Boys and North End Elite, Castator feels most comfortable with the lower key U-Sector group. “Since TFC started, I’ve made a hundred friends I never knew before. We have indoor and outdoor leagues within the group, which I really miss by being in Victoria,” he said.
While Toronto FC have not yet delivered on the pitch to the degree that supporters would like, this season’s early success in the Champions League and the overhauls made in staff and players during the 2011 season give Castator hope. In 2012, “The playoffs are a reasonable goal and an important one. We would also be very disappointed not to win the Canadian championship again,” Castator said. That optimism is new for a club with three previous full-time managers and two interim coaches in just five seasons and that finished sixteenth out of eighteen in 2011.
“Toronto is first and foremost a hockey city. We like our players to be team-first and gritty,” says Castator, as if he never left. Though manager Aron Winter’s style might put a premium on skillful possession, players like Torsten Frings (who was injured in Seattle on Saturday night), Danny Koevermans and Terry Dunfield bring hope that a new era can begin in Toronto that includes post-season appearances and a modicum of respect among other clubs and fans in the league.
Away travel in MLS has been well documented in recent years as supporters, and begrudgingly the league, embrace the time-honored practice of Europeans. For Castator, though, the rewards lie less in accomplishment of travel or even the particular result of a given match. “Danny Koevermans came up to the traveling fans in Los Angeles, thanked us and said he couldn’t believe how far we’d come to support the team,” Castator said, smiling. It is clear just moments after meeting that Castator delights in the club’s successes but, more importantly, is proud of the club’s very existence and his ability to take part in the season in a way other fans cannot. Without the ability to attend every home match, each away experience amplifies his feeling that Toronto FC is his club.
Toronto lost on Saturday night in its MLS season opener, 3-1 to Seattle Sounders, deflating spirits after the Champions League victory just three nights earlier. The Reds will not make another appearance on the west coast until September 22 when another trip to Los Angeles could bring fans like Mark Castator back to the Home Depot Center. Regardless of the number of games he attends this season, Castator will always have the Champions League game in March to remember. But if he has his way, it will be far from the last TFC match he attends across the continent.