The Bucket List. It is an interesting concept. You flick through the pages of your imagination, you list all the things you want to see, the places you want to go, the experiences you want to witness, and you put all these musings down on paper as a way of making them less of a dream and more of an official statement of intent. That is the easy part.
Ticking the items off the list can be a bit trickier. Two years ago I was lucky enough to tick two items off my list in one go. Visit all my old friends in Canada, and witness a major American sporting event. ‘Major’ and ‘American’ might be stretching it, but the following is my story of how a cancelled meet-up and the worst torrential rain I have witnessed in my life allowed me to take a seat in the Stade Saputo to watch Montreal Impact take on the mighty Orlando City in MLS.
No sooner had my train pulled into the Gare Centrale de Montréal than my plans for the day had changed. A family emergency meant my day was now wide open, and the city my oyster. I dropped my bags off at my hotel and let the pavement lead the way.
A brief check of my neatly folded map, plucked from the wall of brochures at the hotel and generously, hastily translated from French to something closer to English by the wonderfully polite receptionist. I made out two words, Turn Left, so I did. Wandering the streets and bazaars, I felt a drop on my brow. Wonderful, I thought: rain.
Luckily Montreal has a labyrinth of underground malls to explore, but there is only so much window shopping and Subway sandwiches a man can put up with before he goes crazy. What to do in Montreal I pondered…
A quick Google and the three letters that would change my evening appeared before me. MLS. Major League Soccer. Montreal were playing Orlando at the Stade Saputo that evening. Evening planned.
I unfurled my map once more. The stadium was all the way out to the edge of the map but I was in the middle. This would take a while, but a while I had. I boarded the Metro and made my way. I was two hours too early, but my choice was rain, or rain while surrounded by a glorious new stadium.
A brief look around the Olympic stadium and I made my way to the new, purpose-built 20,801-capacity stadium: the wonderfully titled Stade Saputo. The directions were tricky. I am not sure walking across acres of grass is part of the official concourse of the stadium, but either way, the walk up was exciting and the atmosphere was building.
Touts were offering tickets, while half-and-half scarves were on sale. I made my way to the ticket desk. General Admission was all that was left; that will do I figured, not realising what lay ahead.
The rain had now become a living fabric, something I could reach my hand through and let my fingers play in. It was time to go in under the comfort of the stand. I strolled around, soaking up the atmosphere, watching life-long memories play out before me.
It was how I had pictured most major American sporting events, but this offered a wonderful French-Canadian twist. Fathers and their sons excitedly exchanging twitches and sharing snacks. But there were no hot dogs. This was Quebec after all. On the menu was Poutin: the delicious dish of chips, gravy and cheese curd. Fathers guzzled beer, their sons drank Canada Dry.
I took my seat. As it was General Admission, as it was bucketing rain, and as I was ridiculously early, I had my choice of seats. I proceeded like the cool kid on the school bus and went straight to the back of the stand.
The seats began to fill in a strange fashion. A few adults would appear, followed by a stream of kids, seemingly one age group at a time. Everyone was decked out identically in the latest Impact tracksuits.
Then the penny dropped: these were all the underage teams from the academy. The crowd began to build. Our section was now full. Enter a barrage of grown men in similar tracksuits shaking hands with each of the underage players.
They marched through each row and then they came to me, and shook my hand too. A quick scan down and I realised I too was wearing a blue jacket – they must have thought I was involved in the academy set up.
Formalities over, the grown men retreated and the pre-match festivities commenced. The big screen introduced the teams. Each face and name announced to a big cheer from the crowd.
About five players in and it dawned on me whose hands I had been shaking. The entire first team squad had greeted me personally to watch their game. Canadians are probably the nicest people in the world, but this was strange even by their standards.
The game kicked off. The funny thing about Major League Soccer for Europeans is that you think you know the players by their surname, but you are rarely right. One player I did know was one-time Manchester United youth Jonathan Spector. He was kitted out and playing for Orlando.
Montreal’s star player was Piatti. Not that one, but rather Ignacio Piatti. The former San Lorenzo number 10 had the moves to make the crowd cheer. He got the game underway with a neat finish after five minutes of action. The game had a nice flow.
There was no major tempo nor talent. But the spectacle as a whole more than made up for the mediocrity of football on show. A poor own goal by Orlando to make it 2-0 just after half time was enough to keep the diehards deep in song. Two men perched on a purpose-built podium took it in turns to conduct the crowds in a chorus of Allez Montreal.
The rest of the action offered barely a sentence or two to write home about, save for a stunning Piatti effort from 30 yards in the 92nd minute to leave the fans wanting more as they wandered home.
The following day I got to meet the friend whose emergency allowed me to serendipitously go and enjoy the game. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful trip across Canada.
But what I will remember most was the atmosphere, the fans, the football, the chants, the Poutin. It proved that MLS may well stand for Montreal Loves Soccer.