By James Bisson, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - After watching the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC capture the first two Nutrilite Canadian Championships, the Vancouver Whitecaps have to figure they're due.
Coming off a crushing second-place finish last year, the Whitecaps come in with a new look as they take on Toronto and Montreal at the annual three-team tournament, which runs from April 28-June 2.
The teams will face each other twice, with the winner advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League tournament later in the year.
The Whitecaps - and just about everyone else - thought they had won last year's tournament. Toronto FC entered the round-robin finale needing to beat the Impact by four goals in order to surpass Vancouver and capture the title on goal differential.
With Montreal resting most of its starters, Toronto did the improbable, trouncing the Impact 6-1 as Whitecaps players looked on in disbelief.
Despite the gut-wrenching turn of events, Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson didn't sound like a man aching for redemption.
"This tournament has been an amazing one for us," Thordarson said Thursday following the release of the tournament schedule.
"I think all the games we have participated in have been fantastic. The enthusiasm around them has also been a very important thing for the development of football in Canada.
"I'm very happy that we are one of the participants in the tournament. Our goal is to try and win this competition. We were very close last year, but hope that we will really be there this year."
All three teams enjoyed a measure of success last season.
Under new head coach Marc Dos Santos, the Impact overcame the debacle at the Nutrilite Championships and rolled to the USL Division One title, beating the Whitecaps 6-3 in the two-game aggregate final. Toronto qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, where it fell 1-0 to Puerto Rico in the preliminary stage.
Toronto head coach Preki said winning the Nutrilite Championship - and with it, a berth in the CONCACAF event - means something to both he and his players.
"I've been in North America for over 20 years, and I've been part of the (U.S. Open) Cup," Preki said.
"In the U.S. Cup, there's not really much passion. Just being here, there seems to be a lot on the line. People are excited to watch the games. Every year I've been following it, and it's been pretty tight."
Both Dos Santos and Thordarson believe their teams are up to the challenge of dethroning the defending champions.
Dos Santos managed to keep most of his championship team intact while adding a few new players into the mix - including national team midfielder Tyler Hemming, who spent time with Toronto FC during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
"I'm very happy with the team we have," said Dos Santos. "We kept the core of the team that was a champion in the USL last year, and afterwards we signed three new players. We think that this year, we have a really balanced team."
Thordarson, a longtime striker with the Icelandic national team, added a number of experienced players to his young squad. The team is especially deep on defence following the additions of Greg Janicki (D.C. United), Nelson Akwari (Charleston) and Blake Wagner (FC Dallas).
With Vancouver set to join MLS in 2011, Thordarson said the Whitecaps' off-season moves were designed to accomplish two goals.
"As we brought in so many younger players last year, it was very important now for us to bring in more experienced players, thinking of the transition year into MLS," said Thordarson, who signed a contract extension in November. "All the players we bring in now are players we believe can play in MLS.
"I also felt last year that we were a little bit young and inexperienced. We lost some games because of that. This year, hopefully we can stabilize the team and get the results we want."
Both Vancouver and Montreal will make the jump this season from the United Soccer Leagues to a temporary Division 2 league created by the U.S. Soccer Federation. They'll play in the same division, which should bolster a rivalry that grew stronger last season.
"Montreal and Toronto, it's always going to be a rivalry," said Dos Santos. "They're two cities that always compete against each other to win.
"Vancouver and Montreal has just grown its rivalry in the past few years. Last season, we played Vancouver six times, and again in the (USL) Final. I think the level of intensity is going to be very, very high in these games."