Finishing second in last year's Canadian tourney was `heartbreaking'
In a busy stretch of a season where the focus is making the playoffs, this is a game that accounts for absolutely nothing in the standings.
But don't suggest to Toronto FC players and coaches that tonight's visit by the Vancouver Whitecaps is a meaningless exhibition match.
"This game is a massive game for us," TFC midfielder Carl Robinson said of the opener in the three-team Nutrilite Canadian Championship.
Calling last year's victory by the Montreal Impact in the inaugural tournament "heartbreaking," Robinson said yesterday "we need to put that right this year" and win.
Robinson likens the format to a local derby in England. Others compare it to the FA Cup or the U.S. Open Cup, which features 40 professional and amateur teams, including some sides from Major League Soccer.
What's clear is for TFC, a franchise which finished in last place in its first two seasons in MLS, capturing a trophy would represent a big step forward for players and fans.
"It's having the pride in Canada," said Robinson, a Welshman, who has been with TFC since it entered MLS in 2007. "We want to be the best team in Canada but there's no point in saying it, we've got to go out and prove it."
As the only MLS team in the round-robin competition, many expected TFC to roll past their United Soccer Leagues First Division cousins last year. But Montreal (2-1-1) took the title over TFC (1-2-1) and Vancouver (1-1-2).
With that victory, Montreal went on to play in the CONCACAF Champions League, which features the best teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The Impact made it all the way to the quarter-finals, drawing 55,571 fans to Olympic Stadium for February's first leg against Santos Laguna from Mexico.
Montreal ended up losing 5-4 on aggregate.
"Obviously every round they were getting through we were disappointed because we were thinking that could have been us," said TFC captain Jim Brennan, a native of Toronto. "So, this tournament we want to win it and we want to be the team that's going to go through it."
After tonight, Toronto hosts Montreal next Wednesday. TFC then visits Vancouver on June 2 and Montreal on June 18.
"When you play Montreal and Vancouver, no matter what sport it is, it's not always pretty," Brennan said. "It'll be a battle."
Even though tonight's game kicks off a stretch of four games in 11 days for TFC, including a first-place showdown in Washington with D.C. United on Saturday, coach Chris Cummins insists his team will be fielding the best team it has.
"This is a big tournament," Cummins said. "I know what it means to fans. I know what it means to the players and the club."
Whitecap coach Teitur Thordarson said the game will be a good chance for Vancouver to get a taste of what MLS competition is like ahead of the team's entry into the league in 2011.
"It is the biggest and best opportunity for us to find out where we are standing and how good we are," Thordarson said.
So too is Dwayne De Rosario, who came over from Houston in an off-season trade and feels TFC has to win the tournament this year.
"It's pride for our hometown," he said. "We want to represent Toronto the best way we can and that's getting a result and moving on."