MLS Cup 2016: Through the Photographer’s Lens

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by MATTHEW KREMKAU

With the MLS Cup final, it’s always a last minute scramble to figure out where it will be held each year. Fans are on the edge of their seat with the anticipation that their team will make the final, with dreams of hosting the big game.

But once that dream becomes a reality, the scramble begins. Like the fans, media members have to make last minute travel plans as well. That is no different for this photographer.

Most of the time, the final is not within a short flight or driving distance. Toronto advanced to the final for the first time along with the Seattle Sounders. The Reds had the best record of the two teams so they got to host the match — and with that, the mad dash to apply and arrange travel to head to Canada for a very cold MLS Cup Final began.

This year’s final was the latest date for an MLS Cup in the history of the league. Figures. With BMO Field situated right next to Lake Ontario in the second weekend of December, we all would really test how much cold we could handle, from the players to … well … the photographers!

A road trip adventure was on the cards and I departed up to the “Great White North” with Christian Araos for the Final just over 24 hours from kickoff, sidestepping the Lake Effect snowstorms throughout New York State. For the most part, it was pretty much smooth sailing, though we had a few dodgy moments. As expected, it was a bit chilly in Toronto when we arrived but nothing too terrible. We headed out for some drinks and a bite to eat before a long day ahead on Saturday.

Toronto CN Tower

As we arrived to the venue for media check in Saturday, the place was packed. MLS said this was their highest attended media event in history, with over 500 media members attending the match.

Nothing was keeping the diehards away from (hopefully) seeing their team finally win it. This being my first MLS Cup Final, I didn’t know what to expect as far as media coverage. I figured it would be like a Copa America Final — well, maybe not that massive. Still, the media and photographer rooms were at max capacity. Photographers had long tables set up in the Toronto Argonauts Football team locker room.

I met up with a few familiar faces who made the trip and decided to brave the cold and get out there. Hand warmers were being passed around like candy. The real trick to the entire match was how to dress for this type of event. Photographers need to function where they can actively shoot and not have interference with big bulky layers or coats. Seven layers of clothes, and far too many things to name later, I was out there trying to not get run over by a 15 foot MLS Cup on wheels. The Fox Sports Crew looked on as they were all trying not freeze.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

The 75+ photographers all started to line up for the march out and anthems. We were told to look to the south for a Canadian F-18 to do the fly over. We all laughed. “How the hell are we going to capture that against a dark sky?” was a common question. That jet was sure noticeable as it came wailing, through. Impressive, but a shame it wasn’t slightly brighter out.

Speaking of light, the stadium and the renovations are fantastic. Not sure if new lights were installed when the stadium underwent Phase I and II of their renovations, but the conditions were excellent. The ISO on the camera did not have to be cranked up super high either, as opposed to Red Bull Arena, where you tend to have to jack that up after awhile.

The fans were super loud all game long, singing and standing and trying to stay warm. I was really impressed with the support there.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

The game itself was a chess match. No one wanted to concede the first goal. It felt like this was going to drag into the late minutes or even worse on such a cold night — extra time and penalty kicks! Toronto had quite a fair amount of chances to score a goal but could not find the go-ahead. Seattle sat back and waited to hit them on the counter.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

Sure enough, with the Sounders unable to get a shot on goal and Toronto falling short on the offensive side, the game was a stalemate after 90 minutes. We were all going to have to suffer through the 10 degree temps (with the wind chill) a little bit longer.

And as if a cruel joke from on high, extra time yielded few surprises (outside the substitution of Giovinco of course), setting this all up for a penalty kick shootout. I’m not crazy about that deciding a huge match like that. Still, if I was a fan, I’d be barfing right about now. The highs and lows a fan can face in that short time as each team takes turns going for the game winning kick has to be nauseating.

Once it got started, the real roller coaster began. Michael Bradley missed his chance as did Alvaro Fernandez for Seattle. Both teams fans were losing their minds as the next miss by either team would surely give the other the title. Roman Torres would eventually lead his team to victory. The air was let out before that shot was even taken and the city of Toronto knew they just let a great opportunity slip by.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

Chaos on the field ensued as Seattle and their front office went berserk. At this point, we had all forgotten about the cold as we tried to get shot after shot. All the photographers scrambled to the other side of the field to try and meet the players as they celebrated in front of their traveling supporters — a race to see whom would capture that unique moment that can be remembered by fans forever.

Frustratingly, it never works out the way you had envisioned. Other photographers in your shot, friends, family, front office personnel all blocking potentially awesome photos. You make due with the time and space you are given.

The trophy presentation is always cutthroat, with everyone jockeying for position and then the inevitable “cram directly in front of the stage blocking your view” mayhem that follows the ceremony.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

After all the festivities, the photographers make for their way to their workstations trying to get as many images up as possible to make deadlines. Luckily, my rush wasn’t as urgent: Christian’s laptop literally froze thanks to the artic weather of the evening.

With that, the night was over and one team left disappointed.

Over 950 miles traveled in 72 hours and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The road trip adventure to MLS Cup is highly recommended if you can get out to a cup final. The league puts on a great final act. And now that I have one MLS Cup final under my belt, it’s time to get out there again. Perhaps a warmer climate next time, but I’d settle on Harrison, NJ just fine!  

Here is a full gallery of photos from the MLS Cup … from my point of view: