Talent gap closes; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver set to battle again
TORONTO - The underdog component to the Canadian championship is not long for this world.
Since the inaugural tournament two years ago, it has had three teams: Toronto FC, from North America's top league, Major League Soccer, and the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, two teams in the lower USSF Division 2 (formerly the USL First Division.)
That has put all the pressure on Toronto. A win is expected; a loss is embarrassing.
However, with the Whitecaps arriving in MLS next year, that feel is expiring. Montreal also is poised to get an expansion berth in the league, with an announcement possibly coming in the coming weeks.
The irony: this tournament, which Montreal won in a surprise in 2008, and Toronto won only with a spectacular 6-1 win in the last game last year, helped to secure those expansion spots.
"There is questioning. There are doubts about our quality," Montreal coach Marc Dos Santos said yesterday. "But after you see that Montreal won the Nutrilite [the sponsor of the tournament] Championship in 2008, and when you see that Vancouver had a very good chance at winning it last year, there is respect. That helps the two clubs make the case that they could compete in the MLS."
So, savour the little-guys-versus-big-bad-Toronto vibe while it lasts. The tournament starts tonight, as Montreal visits Toronto at BMO Field (8 p.m. Eastern Time, Sportsnet). The winner of the round robin, which runs through June 2, advances to the CONCACAF Champions League. Montreal made it to the quarterfinals two years ago. Toronto lost to Puerto Rico, another USL team, in the preliminary round last year.
As usual, Toronto comes in as favourite, boasting the two best Canadians playing in North America, forward Dwayne De Rosario and midfielder Julian De Guzman. However, Toronto needed a final-game hat trick from De Rosario last year to get the goal differential to edge out Vancouver.
"It's two games. It's a home-and-away. Anything can happen in a two-game series with a team," Vancouver goalkeeper Jay Nolly said. "If it was something where it was a 10-game series against a team, the quality side would definitely shine through. With something like this, it's whoever plays better on that day."
"We know where that leads if we continue to go further in that tournament," De Rosario said. "It's a tournament where I think of pride for our fans and for us here in Toronto. It's a tournament I think that we definitely should win."
For now, Toronto can play the part of the Yankees. Next year, that changes, although not necessarily for good. FC Edmonton will join Montreal in what will be known as the NASL next year, raising the possibility that the tournament could expand.
And should it expand? "I'm going to be very honest with you: When I look at our schedule, no," Dos Santos said." But when I look at Canadian soccer, yes. I think, in a lot of years from now, you're going to have a Canadian league with the best Canadian players. But when you look at the schedule right now for the Montreal Impact, if you add another team, and add two more games, you just have to make sure the season goes longer."
For the underdog appeal, it might be worth it.