Before assessing York9 and HFX Wanderers’ great escapes in Canadian Championship play, let’s turn back the clock to 2014.
The Montreal Impact begins Canadian Championship play against FC Edmonton. The Eddies, an NASL side, are heavy underdogs against the MLS big boys. The Eddies win the first leg at home thanks to a late strike from Michael Nonni. Then, after going down in the second leg, the Eddies stage an amazing fightback in the second half of the second leg in Joey Saputo’s backyard. The Eddies are set to shock the Impact until a controversial penalty — seven minutes into stoppage time — allows Montreal to escape.
Montreal goes on to win the Canadian Championship and then surges all the way to the CONCACAF Champions League final. The Impact go on to play in front of a full house at Olympic Stadium.
To think, on that road to the CCL final, the closest the Impact came to being eliminated was in the early phases of the Canadian Championship. FCE gave the Impact a harder time than far more fancied Central American and MLS sides.
The point? That you can’t read a lot into early-round escapes. Sure, HFX Wanderers “lost” the second leg of their series at home to Vaughan Azzurri on a ridiculous own goal , and “only” survived a 3-3 aggregate score on the strength of road goals from the first leg. Sure, York9 was held for nearly 160 minutes by AS Blainville, before Ryan Telfer was first to a rebound in the second half of the second leg — and then York9 held on as the Quebecers surged in what would be a vain attempt to find an equalizer.
Sure, it’s easy to think that the sky is falling for the two CPL sides, but history shows us that an early scare can actually be beneficial to a team — it can remind a group of players that there are no easy elimination games. It warns them that they’ll need to keep their cool when things are tight.
Another example: Italian soccer has a famous tradition — the worse the national side does in the group stage of the World Cup, the more likely the Azzurri are to do well at the World Cup. The Italian pattern of an early loss or draw, then late success, can’t be ignored. In 1982, Paolo Rossi and co. famously won the World Cup, after drawing three games in the first round. That’s right – no wins in the team’s first three games. In 1994, the Italians got to the final, after finishing the group stage with four points in three games — only good enough for third in a tight group in which everyone had a win a draw and a loss. They advanced on the strength of a wild-card berth. In 2006, the Italians won the World Cup but drew the Americans in the group stage.
Let’s go to hockey. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, but do you remember that they lost the first two games of their first-round series to Columbus, and then Game 3 went to double overtime? The Capitals looked like they would be one of the first teams eliminated — and, yet, ended up celebrating in June.
So, while we will no doubt be picking over the performances of York9 and HFX Wanderers over the next few days — after all, it’s what pundits do — we will likely lose sight of the bigger picture. And that is — they advanced. Simple. They got to the next round. And, when that next round begins, no one will care if HFX won on road goals or won by five. No one will care that York scored just once over 180 minutes plus of action against Blainville.
After all, when Montreal got to CCL final in 2015, did anyone mention the Edmonton scare? No, not really.