One particular form of high-pitched whine I've grown used to hearing from certain Major League Soccer fans is that their teams play too many games. These highly-trained professional athletes, who quite literally dedicate their lives to ensuring they're in peak physical fitness can't possibly handle more than thirty-odd games in a season or their livers will explode. Or something.
It's this argument that's behind the recent, widely-reported move to limit the scope of the Voyageurs Cup. Instead of its usual round-robin format, the competition will take the form of a two-round elimination tournament. The first-seeded team based on last year's Voyageurs Cup will play the fourth-seeded team, the second will play the third, and the winners will fight for our national championship and a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. It's not even clear that the tournament will be double elimination: it may just be a single round at the higher-seeded team's home ground. The format has not yet been finalized by the Canadian Soccer Association, but as it stands the second-seeded Vancouver Whitecaps would play old rivals the Montreal Impact, whereas Toronto FC would get a relatively easy time of it against FC Edmonton.
There's been some debate about the CSA just assuming that Toronto should rank ahead of Vancouver, but I'm not going to complain about the seeding. Basing it off of last year's Voyageurs Cup results is as fair a way to seed the tournament as any, and if I were to estimate the current strength of the four teams it would go "Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, then Edmonton" anyway. Besides, as history has shown, the tournament is close enough that no draw is a sure thing. FC Edmonton gave Portsmouth and River Plate a game last season using a somewhat scratched-together exhibition team: the real thing could put up a fight for Toronto FC even at BMO Field.
I dislike the seeding because it avoids natural geographic rivalries: Vancouver and Montreal are tired of each other while Toronto and Edmonton have nothing between them, but plenty of Vancouver supporters were excited about making the trip to Edmonton and Montreal - Toronto is of course a rivalry that transcends mere soccer. Much more importantly, I'm against the seeding because this entire format is preposterous. A four-team round robin, home and away, would mean that each participating team in the Voyageurs Cup would play six games. That's it. Six. Last year they played four and the sun didn't explode.
There's obviously a point at which the Voyageurs Cup would have to move on from the round robin. The Voyageurs Cup can't drag on through the entire calendar. But drawing the line here, with the competition still relatively small and unaccepted by MLS casuals, and a new generation of fans in Vancouver and Montreal having to be introduced to the competition, is the height of absurdity.
Are six games in the Voyageurs Cup really going to break the spirit of our Canadian professionals? If so, maybe they should work on their fitness a little. Six games is not considered a brutal schedule in most cup competitions; MLS teams reaching the semi-finals of the US Open Cup play a minimum of three games, but MLS treats the US Open Cup as a second-rate competition in a way that we all hope the Voyageurs Cup won't be. During the 2010 season, the Puerto Rico Islanders played thirty games in the USSF D2 regular season, six in the playoffs, six in the Puerto Rican domestic cup, five in the Caribbean club championship, and eight in the CONCACAF Champions League. That's 55 games in 2010, most of which were on an awful playing surface in the blistering heat of Puerto Rico, and with harder travel than any other professional team in North America.
You can see that Puerto Rico suffered. As a result of this unbearable schedule, the poor, exhausted, over-worked Islanders only won the Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and USSF D2 championships. In games fifty-four and fifty-five of that horrifying schedule, they put on a master clinic against the regular season leaders of the NASL Conference, playing stupefyingly solid defense, knocking the Carolina Railhawks entirely off their stride for both games, and not looking even slightly unfit.
Do we think that the Puerto Rico Islanders just have superpowers, or are we overrating the impact a fifty-game schedule has on professional soccer players? In 2010 Toronto FC played thirty regular season games, four in the Voyageurs Cup, and eight in the CONCACAF Champions League, for a total of forty-two games. Along with MLS's schedule expansion this coming season, a six-game Voyageurs Cup and a playoff round would still only bring that up to fifty. But Duane Rollins called Toronto's schedule last year "a significant factor" in Toronto's late struggles, even though their early success wasn't actually all that successful and mostly relied on an unsustainable level of scoring from the likes of Cheque-Signing Dwayne De Rosario. Historically, teams have handled that number of games just fine. The 2008 Montreal Impact lost in the 2008 USL-1 playoffs by the skin of their teeth despite winning the Voyageurs Cup and embarking on the longest, most successful CONCACAF Champions League run in Canadian history: the Impact played 46 games in 2008 and were just as strong at the end as they were at the beginning. The 2009 Montreal Impact began their season in February but wound up playing their best soccer at the end of their long year and won the last USL First Division championship. This isn't you and me trying to lug our beer bellies up and down the pitch for ninety minutes. These are professional athletes.
A fifty-game schedule is good enough to make excuses for a team's decrepitude, but there's no reason to believe it materially harms a well-coached, well-conditioned team. Players in poor shape will of course struggle towards the end of a long season, but then again they'll struggle towards the end of ninety minutes too and nobody's suggesting we make Voyageurs Cup games an hour long for their sakes. While it's admirable for the Canadian Soccer Association to worry about the health of its players and the qualify of late-season Major League Soccer games, there's just no evidence a six-game Voyageurs Cup will do any harm to an organized professional squad.
Meanwhile, the Voyageurs Cup is by no means secure enough in the Canadian soccer consciousness to take risks reducing its profile. Die-hard supporters from all three participant cities have embraced the competition, but casual fans in Toronto have stayed away in droves. With Vancouver joining Major League Soccer in 2011 and Montreal the year after, two more newly-enlarged fanbases will be getting their first introduction to our national championship in the coming seasons. If the competition is going to lure Toronto's everyday fans and be attractive to the casuals in Vancouver and Montreal, the Voyageurs Cup cannot come off as second-rate. It can't look like it takes shortcuts and bows to the supremacy of Major League Soccer. It can't look as unfair as a seeded single elimination tournament with only four teams inevitably would.
How can the Voyageurs Cup lure the ordinary soccer fan, one who cares about watching a good, meaningful game rather than supporting his club at all costs? Give that fan the opportunity to see rivals they don't often get a chance to see. Make sure the competition is credible: in a double round robin, you can be confident you'll get a worthy winner. Have the cup be more than just a blip on the calendar, or an opportunity to qualify for a competition that actually matters: build the Voyageurs Cup into something worth winning entirely for its own sake. Don't trivialize it with a quick couple of elimination games against teams the average fan may not care about.
Every year, we see American writers having to run stories convincing the world that the US Open Cup matters. We don't want to be in the same position with the Voyageurs Cup five years from now. It's a storied trophy with a magnificent, inspiring history behind it. It shouldn't be a second-rate cup, and the Canadian Soccer Association should fight the urge to make it one.
: 30 USL First Division regular season, 4 Voyageurs Cup, 2 CONCACAF Champions League qualifying, 6 CONCACAF Champions League group stage, 4 USL First Division playoffs.