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Glorious Fight or Glorified Friendlies: Should We Take the Voyageurs Cup Seriously?

The 2010 Vancouver Whitecaps celebrate a goal at Stade Saputo in last year's Voyageurs Cup. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
The 2010 Vancouver Whitecaps celebrate a goal at Stade Saputo in last year's Voyageurs Cup. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

This morning, I wrote about how the importance of the name of the Voyageurs Cup. Now, I'm going to talk about why I care about the tournament itself.

I can see why most fans, both in Toronto and Vancouver, view the Voyageurs Cup as a second-rate tournament. For Toronto FC fans, the problem is more acute. Their introduction to the tournament came in 2008, as an MLS monolith taking on two USL First Division teams and expecting to handily beat them. When they did not handily beat them, eventually losing out to the Montreal Impact... well, that wasn't a good start. There was no upside for Toronto FC: they were playing two teams the MLS-era fans barely knew anything about. If they won they were expected to, and if they lost then it was an embarrassment. Toronto wound up winning the 2009 championship thanks to the shameful capitulation of the Impact and taking the 2010 edition cleanly, but its importance to the fans was reflected in the attendance.

In Vancouver, of course, the games were much bigger attractions: Montreal is a hated rival and Toronto is the big, bad wolf, the huge favourite, Charlie Brown from outta town coming in to take on our humble local boys. The crowds for Voyageurs Cup games in 2008, 2009, and 2010 were some of the biggest, most boisterous of their respective seasons. But those were division two crowds with the underdog factor on our side: to our tens of thousands of new MLS fans Montreal (and Edmonton) are just minnows and Toronto a slightly more annoying opponent than usual.

So how much does the Voyageurs Cup matter? It's four games: a two-legged semi-final then a final. Toronto is a rival, sure, but a routine one we already see twice a season. Us old second division fans are filled with hatred for the Montreal Impact but what does a first-time fan care? And FC Edmonton? Who the hell is FC Edmonton? And we go through all this for a lovely trophy and a crack to lose to some lousy Central American team like Toronto has made such an art of.

Well, I'll tell you why we should care. This is a serious, legitimate trophy; one the Whitecaps have never yet held aloft. The prize at the end of the day exceeds anything, even the MLS Cup. And it's a competition against teams that matter to us, not teams that matter to Don Garber. It's a perfect combination of rivalry, relevance, and of course revenge.

Just four games. But the biggest four games Vancouver might play this season.

First, a look at the stakes. The winner of the Voyageurs Cup gets Canada's half-entry into the CONCACAF Champions League. A Canadian team cannot qualify for the Champions League any other way; we could win the MLS regular season title and romp to the MLS Cup but if we don't win the Voyageurs Cup, no Champions League for us. Since we only get a half-spot, we'd have to play in the last qualification round (Canadian teams are 2-1 in two-legged qualification series: a win each for the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC and a loss by Toronto to the Puerto Rico Islanders).

As Real Salt Lake can tell us, the CONCACAF Champions League is no little tournament. Indeed, success in the Champions League is not only within reach of MLS teams, but it carries staggering weight in the North American soccer world. One of the biggest crowds ever to attend a competitive Canadian club game was at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal during the winter of 2009 when the Montreal Impact, shock Champions League quarter-finalists, took on Santos Laguna of Mexico. The USL First Division Impact gave Santos Laguna a hell of a ride before losing under circumstances that even I, no Impact fan, still shudder to remember.

Montreal leaped onto the Impact bandwagon for the Santos Laguna game, and that momentum has still, to an extent, carried on to the present day. Moreover, to the extent that Canadian soccer fans can ever back a single club, the country was behind Montreal in that tournament. Even USL fans from south of the border were overjoyed as the Impact lent their league credibility; you could almost call it #USL4MTL except we didn't really use Twitter in those days. No mere MLS Cup run could ever provoke such a reaction, because the MLS playoffs aren't against the best teams in North America.

Why wouldn't we want that for Vancouver? Doesn't that mean a bit more than winning the MLS Cup in that exciting but slightly contrived playoff system? Of course, Vancouver needs to earn that sort of Champions League run: they'd have to beat some good teams. But if we don't win the Voyageurs Cup, we don't get the chance.

Then there's the rivalry factor. Who cares about the New York Red Bulls, the Los Angeles Galaxy? There's no history there, no heat. The Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers matter, of course, but they're just two teams in an eighteen-team league. Montreal, on the other hand, are bastards. It's not just the way they handed the 2009 Cup to Toronto, but it's everything about them: knocking us out in the playoffs later that year, constantly warring with us in every regular season game no matter how routine, former Impact ruffian Adam Braz, new Impact bald bastard goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, a succession of players and coaches and moments which have each given me a reason to hate them individually. As for Toronto FC, well, it's hard to resent them for anything they've done on the field but the old West-vs.-East rivalry in Canada is still alive and well, reinforced all the more for Toronto fans shouting that they don't care about Vancouver every chance they get, like a high school girl loudly proclaiming that she doesn't like that guy anyway.

As for Edmonton, well, there's no rivalry there yet. But I'm sure there's nothing the Eddies would like more than to take the Cup from their over-hyped western cousins. There are certainly plenty of Vancouver fans curious about FC Edmonton and interested in taking a trip over the Rockies. And, of course, a Cup final is a great place to build future rivalries. Somehow, if Vancouver faced Edmonton in the final, I think fireworks would still ensue.

The stakes are high. The opponents are both worthy and meaningful. And it's our national championship: a chance to show that Canada's soccer community takes itself seriously even if nobody else does. That's why the Voyageurs Cup has always been, and will remain, my priority for the Whitecaps. Because it matters in a way the mere regular season never can.