It was early January and Matt Hanlon was spending much of his time laying bricks and building a new grocery store. In the evenings, he would often eat and rush off to train with his local team in preparation of playing a game on the weekend. His team, Sutton United, had a moderate budget - and in this particular season played in the fifth tier of English football, often getting crowds in the hundreds to watch a match at their stadium, situated around ten miles southeast of central London, England. On this afternoon, however, their stadium squeezed 8,000 fans in and to this day many still talk about what happened on the afternoon of January 7th, 1989 when top tier team Coventry City, winners of the FA Cup just 18 months earlier, came to town in the FA Cup third round. At 1-1 shortly before the hour mark, a short corner was eventually played to the back post and it was that pass that changed Hanlon’s life forever. Memories. We all have them. They rest inside of us in different compartments and players are no different. The lucky ones participate in hundreds of games, storing hours of footage in their minds. Reference points that filter through, some sticking forever, many drifting away beyond the capabilities of what can possibly be stored. And then there are the ones that are, truly, never stored away at all. Defining moments, saved for a different folder in the mind, that stay with a player on repeat forever. Back in Sutton, by now the ball was travelling in the air, and as the goalkeeper came to reach for it he already knew his attempt was a futile one. At the back post stood two defenders ready to clear the ball, but Hanlon anticipated it, arriving just a split second quicker, and as the ball came down and looked for a place to land on the ground, it found the right leg of the 22-year-old bricklayer and instantly smashed into the back of the net. The Times newspaper called it one of the greatest giant-killings in cup history. Hanlon was suddenly a household name and called away from his building site two days later to appear on a national television talk show. Whatever else he would come close to accomplishing as a player would never remove that one moment from the opening scene in his mind - and his only scene in the mind of others.

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The winger took his opportunity and is one of the lucky ones. These days, there aren’t as many Matt Hanlon stories in the FA Cup, while here in North America, there simply aren’t enough opportunities for them to be born. Salary caps, revenue sharing, and a desire to sell fans on ‘competitive balance’ has created a professional sporting environment where genuine acts of giant-killing are often limited to the wonderfully, unpredictable opening rounds of the NCAA March Madness tournament, played by college students yet to become professional. Those who do advance to that next level find major sports teams are more like franchises, playing one another with no real cost for true incompetence and failure. When the games of real meaning - in the playoffs - start, many leagues settle on a format that allows them to play multiple games in a series to make up for a team having a bad day. The circle closers battle amongst each other to reign supreme. Thankfully, our sport has always done things a little differently. We should be realistic; empires clearly exist, clubs owned by countries pretend to care when they play minnows and later crush them, but at least the opportunities to dream still exist. Don’t expect the Toronto Maple Leafs to be drawn against the Kitchener Rangers in the battle to lift Lord Stanley anytime soon. Toronto FC on the other hand? Thanks to the development of the Canadian Premier League, we now have an expanded Canadian Championship that has similar traits to the knock-out competitions seen around the world, where plenty of Matt Hanlons dream of big moments. As recently as the second Tuesday evening in September, and just eight days before their own meeting, both Toronto FC and York United played on the same night. Shortly before 9 pm, a steady stretch of a few hundred fans left York Lions Stadium happy after a comfortable 2-0 home win. A spectator used one eye to navigate the stairs while another was focused elsewhere, scrolling through their phone to see the MLS scores that evening. On their journey home, before a late Inter Miami goal had even hit the back of the net at a silent BMO Field, they had already began to pose the question: “Could we beat them?” Four words that say so much. Four words that tell us people are allowed to dream big. Such conversations happening around this game in 2021 show this is already an enormous victory for the sport in this country this year (yes, another one!). They are also the same four words being uttered by HFX Wanderers’ fans against CF Montreal, these same words that were spoken by Pacific FC fans before they watched their team follow through and turn a wish into a premonition against a beleaguered Vancouver Whitecaps in the previous round last month. Home is certainly where the heart is - and while home advantage helped Pacific, it may well help Halifax too on the opening tilt of a Wednesday night triple-header. York, meanwhile, are playing just 36 km from their home stadium, but they are playing a team on a completely different scale when it comes to the resources available to them. They arrive in good form, now in a playoff spot in the Canadian Premier League, and losers of just one in their last 11 in all competitions. On the other hand, Toronto FC…well you know the rest. Despite the misery being compounded regularly at BMO Field, the club should still be expected to see off any challenge thrown at them by the Nine Stripes and start the match as overwhelming favourites. If I asked you to choose a Toronto FC player, it is certain they earn more money than any York United player, even a young player who hasn’t started a game this season and is on loan elsewhere. The third goalkeeper you say? You know the answer. If you picked one of the star players, there’s a chance one of them makes more money in a weekend than most of the York players do in a year. In fact, if you take Toronto FC’s annual players salary budget and equally distributed it amongst a 25-man squad the number, each player earned would still be more than the entire cap for a club in the Canadian Premier League. I hear what some of you are asking: ‘What has money got to do with anything when it comes to current quality and form?’ It is true that some clearly are underachieving when it comes to bringing return on the investment, but if you are here for a story of misplaced funds and how to not run a football club, then sadly, you are also lost. What does need to be established, however, is that this club is a financial behemoth in MLS who has a payroll that could rival any team in global football outside of the Premier League and the traditional European super powers. Toronto FC have been humbled in their own domestic league in 2021, but anything other than a win on Wednesday night would be a humiliation. They are playing a team less than four years old with a club payroll similar to midfielder Mark Delgado’s. A lot of key building blocks have been established at the club for the past years - and although some of the foundation is cracking and needs repair, this should be a battle they can stand tall on. Meanwhile, York United themselves are attempting to build something to last. Like Matt Hanlon many years ago, they are slowly placing key bricks in position for the long-term. Sometimes, though, as Hanlon discovered, you can be pulled from the project to dream for a while. This game presents York United’s players a moment to embrace and an opportunity that could change their lives forever. Should it happen, it will indeed be a remarkable giant-killing upset.

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