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‘Nice to have some atmosphere and some energy’: Toronto FC thrilled to have fans at Rentschler

Fans will file into Rentschler Field for a sporting event for the first time in more than 11 months on Sunday night. Welcoming 5,000 fans for the 7:30 p.m. contest against Inter Miami CF may not seem like much, but after COVID-19 restrictions forced Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC to play its first five games in East Hartford without any fans, it has the playoff-bound Toronto team excited.

“It will be nice to have something that resembles energy in the stadium,” Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney said on Friday’s video call with the media. “Obviously we usually have had that against us. Philadelphia it was a little bit of a different feeling to have people in the stands, to hear people shouting against us. There are things that maybe you take for granted when you do it every single week and you kind of block it out and move on because of the nature of how silent the games have been.

“It is nice to have some atmosphere and some energy that is in the stands. Obviously, the quantity of people is going to be small, but I can tell you that even going from zero to a couple thousand are going to be there, I think it is going to be a huge shift in the energy of what is going on in the day. From a soccer perspective, it will be nice to have people there, from a health perspective I just hope everybody follows whatever guidelines are there to stay healthy and safe and make good, smart decisions.”

More than 26,000 fans were inside BMO Field when Toronto topped New York City FC 1-0 on March 7. Having 5,000 fans in a stadium that can hold 38,000-40,000 may not seem like much, but for the Toronto players, it will be a welcome change.

“Sports, in general, are not the same without fans,” Toronto FC midfielder Nick DeLeon said. “For being on the field, it is not the same without fans. The game is so much slower. The fans bring energy, it is a real thing that all sports need and are missing, so for us to get some fans on Sunday, I couldn’t be any happier. I am looking forward to it, fans are crucial to the environment at the game and the product on the field.”

FC Dallas was the first MLS team to allow a limited number of fans at home matches beginning with 2,912 in attendance in an Aug. 12 contest with Nashville SC.

“I think it has a tremendous impact,” FC Dallas Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Smith said in a phone interview with Hearst Connecticut Media. “There is a reason why the home records are always better than the away records and soccer is no different. Sports have a lot to do with energy and momentum and I think fans provide that excitement, that energy. For us, you can hear more of the sounds and individual fans have more of an impact. I’d like to think that fans have an impact on referees because every call that is bad for the home team, they hear it.”

Many of the people working at Sunday’s game were utilized at nearby Dillon Stadium during the USL Championship season when a limited number of fans were allowed at the Hartford Athletic’s home games. There has also been a screening system in place for employees and media at the previous five games held at Rentschler Field, which will continue.

“What the fans are going to see is going to be very similar to what was done and what we did over at Dillon Stadium, we are going to be distance parking,” Rentschler Field General Manager Ben Weiss said. “We are going to space cars out more than we typically would, be a tremendous amount of signage promoting proper social distancing, mask wearing, identification of hand-washing [stations].”

Just like at Dillon Stadium, there will be restrictions on which way people can walk through the concourse with one-way entries and exits. Rows will be blocked off so people are at least six feet from other spectators.

Weiss estimates that there will be four or five times as many staff members on site compared to the five Rentschler Field games without spectators. Many of them will serve as ushers or part of what Weiss terms, “a heavy cleaning presence.”

When the game is over, there will be an announcement of when a section can leave the stadium so there won’t be issues with social distancing while fans head to the parking lots.

The lower bowl in much of Rentschler Field will not have fans because Toronto reserved those rows of seats to present virtual advertising during the television broadcast of the game. There will be lower-bowl seating on the tower side of the stadium.

Weiss said there were few if any issues with fans at Dillon Stadium causing issues in terms of abiding by the social distancing protocols in place and he is expecting it to be the same thing on Sunday.

The story has been the same at FC Dallas home games.

“Since we were the first ones to open up, I think they were glad to be getting out,” Smith said. “In August there were still people who were uncertain about things and cautious, but we didn’t have any issues with fans trying to break the rules or do things they weren’t supposed to do. Now people have just gotten into that habit, ‘I need to stay six feet away, I need to wear my mask’ so it has become less and less of an issue. In the beginning, it was more of just reminders because people weren’t used to it. We didn’t have any confrontations with fans saying they didn’t want to do this or didn’t want to do that so that was encouraging.”

Fans won’t need to undergo temperature checks to enter Rentschler Field. When they purchased tickets, they were required to agree to the terms, including not entering Rentschler Field if they haven’t been feeling well, displaying any symptoms or recently coming in contact with somebody who tested positive for COVID-19.

With all the buzz about having the first MLS game at Rentschler Field with fans in the stands since New York City FC tied Houston 1-1 on Sept. 23, 2017, it is easy to overlook what is at stake.

Toronto recently dropped out of first place in the MLS standings and currently trails Philadelphia by three points with two matches remaining. Columbus and Orlando are six points behind Toronto with three games left, so playoff seedings are yet to be determined.

Philadelphia announced that Goalkeeper of the Year candidate Andre Blake, former UConn star who is among the MLS leaders in saves and goals-against average, suffered a fractured hand and is out for Sunday’s match with Columbus.

The chance to earn the Supporters’ Shield by having the best record in the MLS is still a goal within reach for Toronto even coming off back-to-back losses.

“We still have a chance at Supporters’ [Shield], we still have a chance at MLS Cup and still have a chance at the Canadian Cup so there are trophies out there to be won,” DeLeon said.

james.fuller@hearstmediact.com; @NHRJimFuller

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