By Simon Fudge/whitecapsfc.com
Tuesday night saw the conclusion of the inaugural Nutrilite Canadian Championship, with Montreal Impact claiming the first-ever tournament title after a 1-1 draw at Toronto FC.
It is the seventh straight time that the Quebec-based club has won the Voyageurs Cup. Montreal won the trophy the first six times as the best Canadian club in the United Soccer Leagues First Division between 2002 and 2007. Before the start of the tournament, Canada's national soccer supporters' group - who are known as 'The Voyageurs' - donated the trophy to the Canadian Soccer Association for the purposes of becoming the new competition's championship silverware.
Of course, the Impact have earned more than a trophy by winning the competition, as John Limniatis' side will represent Canada in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League competition later this summer. The Impact face a two-leg Preliminary Round tie with Nicaraguan champions Real Esteli, with Montreal hosting the Central Americans at Saputo Stadium on Wednesday, August 27. They will complete the tie in northern Nicaragua when Real Esteli host Montreal at the Estadio Independencia on Tuesday, September 2. The winner of the tie will then play in Group C against Mexican club Atlante, CD Olimpia of Honduras, and either Major League Soccer club New England Revolution or Joe Public FC from Trinidad & Tobago. Group stage matches will take place between mid-September and the end of October of this year.
When the six-match Canadian Championship was launched on March 26, many hoped it would dawn a new and exciting era in professional soccer in Canada. With the exception of devoted soccer fans in Montreal and Vancouver, many thought that the 'so-called' pedigree of MLS club Toronto FC would see them overcome the two USL-1 clubs in the Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps. What occurred on the pitch, however, was a fiercely contested set of games between the three clubs.
Action started on May 27 at Saputo Stadium, with Toronto FC claiming the first points in the tournament after a1-0 win over the Impact, who finished the game with ten men after Stefano Pesoli was sent off in the second half for two bookable offences. Defender Marco Velez scored TFC's winner in Montreal.
Soccer fans had to wait until June 17 for the next game in the competition, with Montreal in a must-win situation at home to Vancouver, who were beginning their tournament campaign at Saputo Stadium. First-half goals by Severino Jefferson and former Whitecaps striker Joey Gjertsen helped Montreal to a important 2-0 home win.
The following week in Vancouver on June 25, the Impact took a huge step towards the title, while severely denting the Whitecaps championship hopes after another 2-0 victory at Swangard Stadium. Roberto Brown and former Whitecaps midfielder David Testo struck the goals for Montreal in Burnaby, BC, as the Impact went to the top of standings on six points.
That brought us to Canada Day (July 1) and a must-win situation for the Whitecaps in 'fortress' BMO Field in Toronto. TFC had not lost at home since September of 2007 before Vancouver paid a visit, but Martin Nash's first-half penalty earned the Whitecaps a famous 1-0 victory in southern Ontario – much to the disbelief of the passionate home crowd and the disappointment of an irate TFC head coach John Carver.
Where the intrigue might have been missing the competition's first three games, the excitement generated from Canada Day match brought the tournament plenty of attention ahead of Toronto's visit to Vancouver on July 9. There were a war of words in the press between Carver and Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson before the game, while Whitecaps asked fans to show their support for the home side by wearing blue at Swangard. Despite needing a big win in their final game of the competition, the Whitecaps still delighted their fans – and their fellow USL-1 rivals Montreal – by claiming a late 2-2 draw with TFC. Eduardo Sebrango's two goals denied Toronto three valuable points in Burnaby, despite second-half strikes from Maurice Edu and Rohan Ricketts.
While Vancouver's campaign ended with the draw, TFC were left in a must-win situation in the tournament's final game on Tuesday. Spurred on once again by their home fans, things looked good for the MLS club when Ricketts scored his second Nutrilite goal on 15 minutes. Montreal, however, knew a draw would be enough for them to win the title. That result was achieved on 26 minutes, as Brown headed home Gjersten's well-hit corner into the TFC box. The Impact were then able to hold on for a 1-1 draw and the title of Nutrilite Canadian Championship winners for 2008.
As all three clubs now return to matters in their own leagues, many in Canadian soccer will hope the competition is an important starting point for the growth of the professional game in the country. Though it may be difficult to predict how the Nutrilite Canadian Championship will evolve in the coming years, the excitement the inaugural 2008 edition is sure to have soccer fans across the country wanting more.