It’s a special time for Vancouver Whitecaps fans: the Canadian Championship. Every year, it’s an opportunity to see old friends from the second division, dream of Central America and ugly cry after the final.
Vancouver will visit FC Edmonton tomorrow in the first leg of a two-match semifinal, with Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact in the other side of the bracket. The Championship, also known as the Voyageurs Cup, is how I got into following the Whitecaps, and it’s always been the source of some lovely memories. And some really, really awful memories.
What’s at stake?
The winners of the Canadian Championship are awarded the Voyageurs Cup, named for the national team supporter’s group that bought the trophy. They are also granted a spot in the CONCACAF Champion’s League, which is like the European version except with less money and more trips to crazy loud Mexican and Central American stadiums. (MLS teams usually compete for that through the league or the U.S. Open Cup, but we are special Canadian flowers and we get our own route. It works out.)
How did it start?
It started life in 2002 as the Voyageurs Cup, a trophy founded on donations by the national team supporter’s group and completely organized by the fans. At the time, all the Canadian professional teams played in the North American second division. From 2002 to 2007, it was awarded to the team with the best results in the regular season against the other Canadian teams in the league, which was invariably the Montreal Impact. Montreal competed yearly with the Whitecaps, TFC’s predecessors the Toronto Lynx, and, for a time, a Calgary team.
But things were changing rapidly by 2008. Toronto got an MLS expansion team and CONCACAF was rearranging its eight-team knockout cup into a 24-team format more like Europe, with group stages. Since American teams had always been awarded to the top two MLS teams, Canada needed to find a way to pick their own champion. Enter the Canadian Championship, a four-game round-robin between Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Eventually, Edmonton joined the second division, and in 2011 it changed to its current form, home-and-away semifinals followed by a two-legged final.
Has it been fun?
Oh yes. Back before Vancouver and Montreal got their MLS spots, it was a fun chance to take swipes at big-league Toronto. To those who had schlepped it in the second division for years, Toronto fans seemed like plastic jerks with no sense of history, who thought they were important just because they had games on TV. (Now, of course, we’re all that way.) A 1-0 win at BMO Field in 2008 was an underdog’s triumph, and though the ‘Caps lost, taking five points off Toronto kept them from seizing the first Cup of the new era.
Vancouver really wants to win one of these, largely because it keeps evading them. Last year’s 1-0 wet-fish loss against a TFC team that had been dire in almost every other match it played was brutal. In 2011, Vancouver were leading 1-0 in the 60th minute of the final’s second leg at BMO Field before rain and lightning caused the game to be called off. It was restarted a month later from 0-0, and TFC maddeningly won 2-1.
And then there’s 2009.
What happened in 2009?
It was an exciting time! A young nerd from the B.C. Interior who’d been watching Tottenham since 2005, I started following the exploits of the second-division Vancouver team, who’d recently been awarded an MLS franchise for 2011. On a vacation to the Lower Mainland, I poked my head in the door for my first ever pro game live, a Voyageurs Cup game against Montreal. It was wonderful, although I missed Ethan Gage’s 60th-minute goal because I was making an emergency run to the portable washrooms behind the bleachers that held the Southsiders in Swangard Stadium.
I prolonged my vacation enough to make the next V-Cup game against Toronto, and it was delirious. With all the pressure — Toronto would win the Cup on our ground if they beat us — Ansu Toure scored twice, and Vancouver turned aside those big-league jerks. Not only that, but barring an inconceivable four goal win for TFC in their final game against Montreal, Vancouver were going to win the trophy themselves. We were dreaming of Costa Rica. There was a pitch invasion. It was like this:
Two weeks later, Toronto and Montreal lined up at Stade Saputo, with a crew of Whitecaps players watching from the stands. It couldn’t go wrong, right? Montreal wouldn’t ship five. They were too good for that. Even though they’d fielded what looked like a weak side, when they scored the first goal on a penalty, that looked like it was done and dusted.
And then Dwayne DeRosario, that asshole, scored twice before halftime. Then again for a hat trick. Then Amado Guevara scored. And then Chad Barret scored. Guevara’s 90th-minute goal sealed it. Toronto had won 6-1. Each goal was like a punch to the stomach.
Writing for the 24th Minute at the time, I had absolute sorrow. From Whitecaps president Bobby Lenarduzzi down, everyone was furious at Montreal for rolling over. They maintained they were saving their energy for the league game against Vancouver on the weekend, when, to add insult to injury they trounced the Whitecaps on national TV. The Montreal supporters’ group boycotted the first half in protest. There would be no Costa Rica. Toronto lost in the first round of the Champions League.
It was sporting hurt. Vancouver fans fly banners that read Je me souviens to remember it. One of these days, we’re going to win this damn thing. Maybe this is the year.