TORONTO – Every year, the Canadian Championship – the tournament that decides which club will lift the Voyageurs Cup – provides some of the best action of the season.
And some of the best drama, too.
The 2019 edition will be particularly special, as the seven Canadian Premier League clubs will compete in the tournament for the first time, expanding the competition from six teams to 13.
Introduced in 2002, the Voyageurs Cup was once awarded to the team who fared best in the league matches between Canadian clubs, with the Montreal Impact winning all six times. But come 2008, a proper round-robin tournament was born.
Since those early days, a variety of changes have reflected developments in the club game domestically, whether the addition of a preliminary round, or, as with last year, a pair of qualifying ones as the champions of League1 Ontario (L10) – Oakville Blue Devils – and Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ) – AS Blainville – met for the right to square off against Ottawa Fury FC before the MLS clubs got involved.
This year, more than twice as many communities will get a taste of the quest for cup glory, spreading the game’s footprint across the country.
“It’s an excellent element for Canadian soccer; to increase the image of the game,” Forge FC coach Bobby Smyrniotis told CanPL.ca. “It gives more of the storyline around the country. Look down south in our neighbours and the US Open Cup. Every year there is a team, an amateur team, a team from the USL, that is creating a good story. We did not have that here. It was pretty much a three horse race.
“It provides a greater outlook for our game, more attention. I wouldn’t mind seeing it expanded [further] in the future. It’s great for the country and soccer.”
Rest assured – as with every year, there will be plenty of stories to tell in 2019, too.
“It’s getting to where it’s becoming a proper tournament,” Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney said. “It’s going to continue to evolve; the competitiveness, the level, and the different layers. It’s nice to see more teams be involved, (and) more rivalries will come out of that. The competition will become more interesting, in terms of viewership and the amount of cities that are now involved.
“It will take it to another level.”
Since the tournament itself was launched, Toronto have won seven editions, including the last three, while Montreal have taken three, including the very first in 2008. It brings the Quebec-based club’s total to a record nine, with the Vancouver Whitecaps winning just the once in 2015.
But with MLS, USL, CPL, L1O, and PLSQ teams all now involved, navigating a path to the final becomes a weightier proposition.
“It makes the trophy that much more prestigious,” said TFC midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who with three goals in last season’s cup was honoured with the George Gross Memorial Trophy as tournament MVP. “You’re not fighting with only three teams, now you’re battling a whole bunch of teams.
“That’s only going to make it better.”
All eyes will be on the most mouth-watering potential matchup: If and when that first-ever CPL-MLS encounter occurs.
“For us, it’s huge,” Forge midfielder Tristan Borges said of the prospective tilt. “Both as a club and players, we get to show what we’re capable of.
“This [will be] a good time to show the qualities we’re going to have, that this is an up-and-coming and promising league. It’s really important for us to play well in these games.”
Not that that would change their approach one iota.
“To the outside observer, the fans and spectators, it will be fantastic. It gives people more to talk about,” Smyrniotis offered.
“From an internal aspect, as a coach, it’s another game on the schedule. You’re going to scout and play your opponents based on what their abilities are, their weaknesses and strengths. We’re going to take opponents from MLS no different from what we would any other team.
“From a budget aspect, it’s a tough task, but one thing that is for sure: once you roll that ball on the field, it can go every way. I look forward to it: for the challenge it provides, myself, my staff, and my team.”
That prospect appeals to the defending champions, too.
“I hope we get a chance to play one of the CPL teams in a semifinal. That would turn heads,” Osorio said. “It’s an exciting time, maybe more for [the CPL teams]. It’s a tournament that they’re really going to be looking forward to, to prove themselves.
“It’s exciting times for Canadian soccer.”
He’s spot on with his assessment.
“Playing in these moments, being a part of something like this, is something all players live for,” said Borges, who spent time in the TFC Academy before venturing to Holland and SC Heerenveen. “The best thing for any athletes is to play at home, be part of something special. It’s amazing.”
Already, the chatter has begun among young Canadian talents – friends, really – who now play across multiple teams.
“I’m quite excited for the Canadian Championship this year,” said TFC’s Jordan Hamilton. “A bigger tournament, the coaches of the CPL are majority Canadian [ones] who have known me, and I’ve known a bunch of guys on the [various CPL] teams since we were 12 years old.
“I’ve already started hearing some of the chirping from my childhood teammates who are now CPL players. They can’t wait to get a crack at us. I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to defend our crown.”