Think Habs-Leafs on turf - The Province

Marc Webber

National pride at stake tonight as Caps host Montreal

Tonight at Swangard Stadium, the Vancouver Whitecaps host USL-1 rivals Montreal in their first home game of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, a four-game series that will determine the Canadian qualifier for the new CONCACAF Champions League. The series includes Toronto FC of the MLS. So here are four reasons why this game matters more than any other so far this season.

Pride

So you've never heard of the Puerto Rico Islanders, you wouldn't recognize Carl Valentine if he cooked you dinner and you think a bicycle kick is something a drunken teenager does on Granville Street.

Good news: You don't need to know anything about the USL, the Whitecaps or soccer to get fired up for this one. Just think about the Habs and the Leafs, then transpose those feelings to the soccer pitch.

"You want to be the top team in Canada for sure," said veteran Jeff Clarke. "It's about Canadian rivals and it lights a fire under you."

The last time Vancouver competed for a Canadian championship at home was 1992 when the then 86ers battled with the Winnipeg Fury for the Canadian Soccer League's Mita Cup.

Potential

For this series to really get interesting, Vancouver has to ensure its July 1 and 9 games against Toronto FC mean something.

Toronto offers something new for local fans and attracts national media attention. Plus, the big brother, little brother tags that come with MLS and USL association, respectively, play perfectly with the existing Toronto/Vancouver comparisons.

Those games have the potential to generate serious hype, but only if the Whitecaps are realistically still in it, which requires beating Montreal tonight.

"We know what this game means," said midfielder Alfredo Valente. "It means a lot for us to keep ourselves in the mix, keep that hope alive of winning the Canadian championship and going on."

Exposure

Tonight's game is live on CBC in Eastern Canada and locally at 11 p.m. The Whitecaps/Toronto FC game on Canada Day in Toronto will be shown live coast-to-coast.

Not since the CSL days have the Caps been on national cable TV (Fox Soccer Channel does show USL games).

"It's tremendous," Caps president Bob Lenarduzzi said of the opportunity. "I've spoken to [CBC executive director] Scott Moore and he's quite bullish on soccer. They see soccer as a sport that has great potential."

The snowball effect

The Canadian champ will move on to face a Nicaraguan side in a two-game set in August), with a 16-team group stage in October and knockout stage in February.

Interest will surely grow with each phase of qualification and the benefits would be widespread.

"There are spinoffs of being involved year round -- you can have more of a community presence," said Lenarduzzi. "I think it would keep us in the forefront."

Canada head coach Dale Mitchell said there are player development benefits, too.

"Certainly from my point of view, players who pick up experience in other CONCACAF countries -- it's a positive," said Mitchell, who hopes to see more domestic club players crack the national side.

"And it's not hard to do the math. More games means more training, and the more experience you gain as a player, the better you become."

Schedule

May 27: Toronto FC 1 Montreal 0

June 17: Montreal 2 Vancouver 0

Today: Montreal at Vancouver 8 p.m., TEAM 1040, CBC, 11 p.m.

July 1: Vancouver at Toronto 1 p.m., CBC

July 9: Toronto FC at Vancouver 7 p.m.

July 22: Montreal at Toronto FC 4 P.M.