The saying “familiarity breeds contempt” is often used to describe the most volatile rivalries in any sphere of life. It could also be the theme for Canadian soccer over the next two months. Contempt may come quickly as Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, and the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact of United Soccer Leagues First Division compete in the Canadian qualification tournament to determine Canada’s entry in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League.
The tournament is a milestone in the continuing evolution of Canadian soccer since the winner will be Canada’s first representative in a CONCACAF club tournament in over 30 years. The Whitecaps, Impact and Toronto Lynx were rivals in USL First Division until the Lynx dropped down to the USL’s Premier Development League for the 2007 season. But the Canadian qualification tournament will take this rivalry to another level with Toronto now in MLS. If the tournament’s opening match between Toronto FC and Montreal Impact is any indication, then each match should have the intensity of a winner-take-all title fight.
Toronto FC beat Montreal 1-0 on May 27 at Stade Saputo, Montreal’s new soccer-specific stadium, in a game that showed the relative parity among the three clubs. The Impact took the play to Toronto from the opening whistle looking to send a message. Toronto, though, regained its form in the second half and escaped with a valuable road win thanks to a goal by Puerto Rico international Marco Velez. Action resumes again on June 17 with the Whitecaps taking on the Impact in Montreal.
Montreal and Vancouver have been long-time franchises in USL First Division and have faced each other many times over the years. Toronto FC is in only its second season in MLS. Each match going forward has the potential to be a heated battle on many different dimensions with so much at stake.The rosters of the three clubs are littered with players that played for one or both of the other teams at various stages of their career. Montreal has former Whitecaps forward Joey Gjertsen, forward Charles Gbeke and midfielder David Testo, while defender Adam Braz spent last season with Toronto FC. Chris Pozniak, one of Toronto FC’s Canadian signings in its first year, is now with Vancouver and joins former Toronto teammate GK Srdjan Djekanovic and former Impact players midfielder Martin Nash, defender Adrian Cann and forward Eduardo Sebrango. Long-time Impact goalkeeper Greg Sutton is the number one goalkeeper in Toronto. These players will be looking to make a statement when they face their former teammates on the pitch.
Bragging rights to Canadian soccer supremacy are also at stake besides the Champions League berth. Though the Impact and Whitecaps are one level below Toronto FC, both are winning franchises that would relish knocking off Toronto FC. The Impact have been perennial USL Division 1 title contenders for many years, winning league championships in 1994 and 2004. Vancouver won the USL Division 1 title in 2006 and has a long track record of playoff appearances. “They (tournament matches) are going to be tough games and it won’t be pretty football with a lot of flying tackles,” said Toronto FC defender and captain Jim Brennan.
While Toronto FC’s off-field success has made news across Canada, the unwavering support of soccer in Montreal and Vancouver has been cast in the shadow. The Impact have drawn capacity or near-capacity crowds for many years, first at the 10,000-seat Centre Claude Robillard and now at Stade Saputo. Montreal has a long history in soccer going back to the days of the Montreal Manic of the North American Soccer League. Likewise, Vancouver has a strong soccer tradition with solid support for the Whitecaps, dating back to the NASL, and the Canadian national teams. Both clubs hope to parlay their track records and tournament performance into a MLS expansion franchise with the league expected to grow to 18 teams in the next few years. Montreal and Vancouver have expressed interest in joining the league and MLS commissioner Don Garber has mentioned the two cities as potential candidates. Sutton feels the MLS aspirations will give the Impact and Whitecaps added incentive when they face Toronto FC. “This will be a tough tournament,” said the tall lanky goalkeeper who’s in the mix to see some action for Canada in 2010 World Cup qualifying. “It will be very emotional for them since they’re trying to bid for an MLS expansion franchise.”
Toronto, despite great interest in marquee international soccer events such as European championship and the World Cup, has a checkered history of support for professional soccer. The NASL’s Toronto Blizzard did not set any records at the gate and there was little interest, from both soccer fans and media, in the Lynx. The tournament also has the potential to stoke civic and cultural passions among fans. The clubs represent the country’s three largest cities, which often compete outside of the realm of sports, from attracting film productions to securing major events. Montreal’s matches with Toronto and Vancouver will pit French Canada versus English Canada, while Vancouver’s matches against Toronto and Montreal will add more fuel to the rivalry between east and west.“It’s easy to get up for anything you do against Montreal, said Brennan. “You want to win. You don’t want to go up there and lose to them.”
Despite its small size, players and management believe the tournament will have a major impact on Canadian soccer. “It’s a serious tournament with a serious pot, so, hopefully, it will go a long way to raise the level of soccer in Canada,” said Pozniak, who has also played for the Canadian national team and the Lynx. “It (the tournament) will raise interest in Canadian soccer since people will be watching to see who the best team in Canadian soccer is.” Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, one of the tournament’s key proponents, believes that the tournament has the potential to be a landmark development in Canadian soccer. “Over time, people will look back and say it was one of the most significant evolutions of the pro game in Canada,” said the former Whitecaps great. “I think that this is a base that we will be building from and it will drive elite player opportunities by giving clubs a part in player development.”
While excitement is building among players and management, the tournament is building momentum off the field. The Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) signed Nutrilite, a vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements brand, to a title sponsorship deal that formally names the tournament the “Nutrilite Canadian Championship.” As well, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) signed a deal with the CSA to broadcast all six matches and stream them live on the network’s website.
Those tuned in will see Toronto (6W-2D-4L) led by leading scorer Danny Dichio, who’ll be supported by a creative midfield that features MLS Rookie of the Year Maurice Edu, Honduran playmaker Amado Guevara and former French international Laurent Robert. Sutton has been steady in goal for the club, which sits in third place in the Eastern Conference as of June 14. The Impact (3-2-6) is off to an uncharacteristically slow start and sits in ninth place. Striker Rocco Placentino leads the team with two goals, but the team has only seven goals in 11 matches. Vancouver (7-1-3) is in first place and led by the consistent offence of Sebrango, who leads the team with four goals. The defence, though, has been the story with the club surrendering just seven goals in 11 games. Djekanovic has four shutouts in six starts, while Jay Nolly has three shutouts in five matches. The three teams each play four matches in a home-and-away round-robin tournament that will end in late July. A team earns three points for a win and one for a draw with goal differential the main tiebreaker. The winner will capture the Voyageurs Cup and advance to the preliminary round of the Champions League where it will play a home-and-away series against a club from the Central American or Caribbean Zone. The trophy is named after a group of Canadian soccer supporters, who donated the trophy to the CSA to award to the winner. It was originally awarded to the best Canadian team among the Whitecaps, Impact and Lynx based on head-to-head results from USL Division 1 league play.
Lenarduzzi sees the current qualification set-up as just the beginning to a larger tournament that could resemble the U.S. Open Cup. “The idea of starting with three professional clubs is the right way to go, but it’s difficult to determine a second tier,” said Lenarduzzi. “We got the pro side sorted out now. The next step is for the CSA and the clubs to come together and determine what the next level is. It’s identified, but it’s muddled, and there needs to be greater consistency. Once we figure out the landscape, then we can open it up like the FA Cup (in England).” Toronto FC coach John Carver believes that would be a fantastic situation and a boon to the Canadian national team in the long run, but is focusing on the task at hand. “We want to win it (the tournament), it’s a chance for us to get some silverware,” said Carver. “We’re talking about bragging rights, but there’s a pot of gold at the end.”