Of course I'm excited about the Vancouver Whitecaps participating in Major League Soccer next season. The drama, the rivalry, the high level of competition and the constant drive to improve more quickly than your adversaries. The ancient history and storied, prestigious competitions. Like the Heritage Cup, which is something I'm told the Whitecaps will be competing for. Apparently it's between teams which used to be in the old North American Soccer League, so Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, and San Jose. Yes, I realize that some of those teams are, like, four steps removed from the actual NASL organizations but they have the same name so it's heritage-y.
Basically, it's the Cascadia Cup plus the San Jose Earthquakes. As a Vancouver Whitecaps fan, I'm asking "since when did I care about the San Jose Earthquakes?" I'm still angry at Frank Yallop for screwing up the Canadian men's national team for a generation but I'm not sure I'd be willing to award a cup over it. It seems arbitrary: should I be looking forward to the "A-League Cup" between Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, and Montreal in 2012? I'd be far more interested than that than in the Heritage Cup, which is to say hardly interested at all.
I almost feel bad about dismissing it, though. Because the Heritage Cup, on a level, is exactly the sort of competition I love: one created by the supporters rather than foisted upon us by the league. It began in 2009 at the urging and instigation of a San Jose Earthquakes fan and is still overseen by the Soccer Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which isn't exactly a supporter's group but is a grassroots community soccer organization rather than an instrument of Don Garber's will. The problem is that it was created on entirely artificial lines seemingly just so the Earthquakes had something else to play for. I've never even heard of a Sounders fan who rejoiced in their victory this season. Vancouver supporters have been discussing the Heritage Cup recently, and the consensus has been "who cares?" You certainly won't see me promoting it unless San Jose does something to make me hate them. Cups should spring from rivalries: the other way around doesn't work.
A fan-supported competition can be intensely important. But only when it truly is supported by all the fans, not just a fan. The Heritage Cup does not pass that test, but the Whitecaps will be playing in a couple others that do.
Everybody has a different idea of which competition is most important to them, of course. To me, the one trophy I hope the Whitecaps win more than any other is clearly the Voyageurs Cup, the award for winning the Canadian Championship between Vancouver, Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact, and FC Edmonton.
The Voyageurs Cup was founded back in 2002. Canada's national soccer supporters' group, the Voyageurs, purchased the (beautiful) trophy as an award for the Canadian team that boasted the best record against their Canadian rivals in A-League play. It was fan-created and fan-supported in the truest sense: the national team's fans paid for the trophy, they urged supporters of the other professional clubs to accept it, they tried to convince team front offices of its importance. Canada's soccer community in 2002 was nothing like what we know today: far smaller, far more isolated. The Voyageurs truly were trying to build something new, and the fact that they succeeded is a greater tribute to the Canadian soccer supporter than anything else I can imagine.
In the first year, the field was Montreal, Vancouver, the Toronto Lynx, and the Calgary Storm. Montreal took the trophy in 2002, as they would for the next seven years. The competition briefly expanded to five teams in 2004 when the Edmonton Aviators finished a surprising third, but the next season both Edmonton and Calgary folded and it was just Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto left to duke it out. The competition continued in this form, always part of the league schedule and always supported only by the enthusiasm of the Voyageurs and the willingness of the Montreal Ultras to accept a trophy every year, until 2007 when Toronto FC joined Major League Soccer and the Toronto Lynx dropped down a level to the USL PDL. That year the competition was just between Montreal and Vancouver. Montreal won.
This history alone would be enough to make the Voyageurs Cup relevant in my eyes. It was the closest thing we've had this century to a Canadian professional soccer league. It brought together supporters from three hubs of Canadian soccer society. It exploited the oldest rivalries in this country, ones that go beyond sports. And it was all the work of a few dedicated, heartfelt fans who just wanted this country to have a national champion even if they had to crown it themselves. When the Canadian Soccer Association and the Voyageurs entered into an agreement to have the Voyageurs Cup crown the official national champion at the conclusion of the Canadian championship... it's no exaggeration to say that, for many of the cup's supporters, it was the realization of a dream. Given that the Voyageurs Cup now carries a half-place in the CONCACAF Champions League with it, between its history and its potential I frankly value it far more than I'd value the MLS Cup. This makes me an eccentric, but it's an eccentricity I can live with.
Then there's the Cascadia Cup. It has a lot in common with the Heritage Cup: three teams tied together by history, a cup founded by the supporters, and one which takes place not as a separate competition with its own stakes but as additional award for regular season games. Yet I'd take one Cascadia Cup over a thousand Heritage Cups, because the Cascadia Cup has more than just history: it has rivalry. Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver weren't only trying to beat each other in the NASL days but over most of the years in between. The three cities are close enough to great away support at every stadium. There's genuine ill-feeling between the supporters (at least, on the pitch: we also have that endearing North American ability to go to the pub with the enemy after the game and get into drinking rather than knife fights). The clubs have had some legendary on-field tangles. The supporters are the lifeblood of the competition, rather than Major League Soccer piously declaring it an Official Derby that We Should Care About Now.
A competition only means anything insomuch as the fans believe it means something. That's why Toronto FC fans could criticize the Canadian national team wanting to take its players for the Gold Cup: the Gold Cup doesn't mean anything to them even if there are some of us for whom witnessing another Gold Cup championship would be one of the highlights of our soccer lives. That's why the Heritage Cup doesn't mean anything even if the San Jose Earthquakes fans want it: the Seattle, Vancouver, and probably Portland fans consider it a sideline. On the other hand, that's why the Cascadia Cup still meant a great deal even for those two years when Seattle was no longer a part of it. It'll be interesting to see if the new Seattle fans who only started cheering for the club with MLS feel the same way about the Cascadia Cup as we do: if the new fans don't get on board with the rivalry, the rivalry will die. Can a bunch of newcomers for whom the Cascadia Cup is arriving as suddenly as the Heritage Cup is for us really become that emotionally invested?
Then again, I think about the horde of U-Sectorites, Red Patch Boys, and North End Elites I saw at BMO Field last summer when I went to see the Whitecaps play the Voyageurs Cup. By that point the competition had already been decided and the game was a glorified friendly. The casual fans stayed home on a horrible rainy weekday but the supporters were there in force, singing and cheering and going to their usual lengths to cheer the team on. They weren't around for the Toronto Lynx but they understood the Voyageurs Cup all the same. Swing by the Voyageurs board sometime and see if Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto supporters don't have a rivalry going. I'm betting that, after 150 Southsiders and Timbers Army invade Qwest Field and the clubs slug it out as they always have, most of the Seattle Sounders fans will start having very strong opinions indeed about the Cascadia Cup.
That's how you can tell a true rivalry. That's what makes a cup really worth following and winning. The supporters don't need somebody to tell them that it matters, because they make sure it matters on their own.