Cinderella story Impacts Whitecaps - The Vancouver Sun

Montreal's run at a CONCACAF semifinal berth last year puts new emphasis on the Canadian championship

By Ian Walker

Bob Lenarduzzi blames himself. He shouldn't, really. No one can be faulted for failing to grasp the importance of the inaugural Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

That said, the three-team, six-match, double round-robin tournament between the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC and Montreal Impact can't be ignored any longer. Not after Montreal's Cinderella run in the CONCACAF Champions League last year. The Impact's success -- they were two minutes from clinching a berth in the semifinals -- was Canada's feel-good soccer story of the year.

More than 55,000 fans packed into Olympic Stadium to cheer on the Impact in their quarter-final match against Mexico's Santos Laguna in March. It was the largest crowd for a soccer game in this country since 58,000 fans took in a playoff game between Montreal Manic, of the now-defunct North American Soccer League, and the Chicago Sting in 1982.

The curtain raises on the second edition of the Canadian championship today when the defending United Soccer Leagues First Division champion Whitecaps visit Major League Soccer's Toronto FC at BMO Field.

"I envisioned over time it would be a tournament that people would look forward to, but with Montreal's success it's accelerated more than I would have thought," said Lenarduzzi, who was among the masses at the Big O last spring. "Certainly, this year when we were planning our season, unlike last year where we sort of slotted it in where we could, this year it became a priority for us. This year we won't look back and say we didn't do all we could."

National pride isn't the only thing on the line. Today's match also will provide a glimpse ahead to the 2011 MLS season, when Vancouver will compete in North American soccer's premier loop.

Before last year's competition started, soccer experts assumed TFC would steamroll over its USL-1 Canadian brethren. Obviously, that didn't happen. Vancouver beat Toronto 1-0 in front of a raucous Canada Day crowd last July at BMO Field, and then scored an equalizer in the 87th minute to reach a 2-2 draw against TFC at Swangard Stadium. Montreal earned the right to represent Canada by virtue of a loss and a draw against Toronto and a sweep of Vancouver.

"It's of huge importance," said Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson, following his team's practice on Tuesday. "We want to go through the Nutrilite. Montreal had a great run last year and showed to everyone how important it is. As well, we also want a good result as Toronto is a good club and we want to see how we fair against an MLS club."

Vancouver plays in Montreal on May 20 in its next Nutrilite matchup before hosting the Impact on May 27 and Toronto June 2 at Swangard Stadium.

- Whitecaps fans can watch Vancouver's match at Toronto FC live at the Library Square Public House.

iwalker@vancouversun.com
© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service