I've rambled on about the name of the Voyageurs Cup. I've rambled on about the significance of the Voyageurs Cup to the Vancouver Whitecaps. And now I'm going to put on another hat and talk about how important the Voyageurs Cup is to fans of FC Edmonton.
When FC Edmonton kicks off against Toronto FC tomorrow evening, it'll be Edmonton's home opener. And let's be clear: we're not going to see a raucous, sold-out Commonwealth Stadium. Thanks to Edmonton getting screwed over by the network and the Canadian Soccer Association, walk-up sales will probably be virtually nil as people head home from work on a weekday rather than frantically rush to Commonwealth. I'll be at the game, cheering on FC Edmonton and desperately trying to follow the Whitecaps, but there definitely won't be too many others there. And I'm sure I'll get back to see various comments on Canadian soccer forums, some disappointed and others gloating, about how mediocre Edmonton's attendance had been.
There might also be some tut-tutting about FC Edmonton's performance on the field. Out of all the Canadian clubs in this competitions, FC Edmonton actually has the best record: two wins and one loss, all on the road, while Toronto and Vancouver have one win each and Montreal is winless. But still, nobody is making an NASL expansion team filled with kids and local talent a favourite against the more experienced Toronto FC, even with Edmonton playing at home and Toronto's willingness to play a full squad being questionable. Toronto could, conceivably, walk out of Commonwealth with a 3-0 win and a bunch of smiling faces.
But even so. This game is almost the perfect home opener for a young club like FC Edmonton. If they lose, and lose badly, then they lost to a team they had no right to beat. If they win, then it's the best start imaginable: a famous victory over a more illustrious team full of name players that sent them scurrying back to BMO Field with their tails between their legs and their backs against the wall.
I talk about the Voyageurs Cup in terms of the Vancouver Whitecaps, and that makes sense since this is a Vancouver Whitecaps blog. But it might be a far bigger opportunity for FC Edmonton. If they want to emblazon their name on the country's soccer consciousness, this is the best opportunity they're going to have.
There's something amazing about being a division two David taking on the Major League Soccer Goliath. You and I know that the difference in play between Major League Soccer and the North American Soccer League isn't as huge as it's always made out to be: MLS is better, of course, but not as far ahead as a first division usually is over a second. Because they're no promotion or relegation, good NASL teams stay in the NASL and bad MLS teams stay in MLS, thwarting the usual course of soccer Darwinism.
Still, Major League Soccer gets the fans and the media attention in the way a second division team never does. If you live in an NASL market, you probably hear about the MLS teams in the media far more often than you hear about your own. To see one of those big, glorious MLS sides come to town and put their reputations on the line against the local underdogs, well, it's one of the moments that makes soccer such a great sport. Those games at Swangard Stadium against Toronto FC are some of the greatest times I've had cheering on the Whitecaps. Even when the Whitecaps didn't play terribly well, as happened in 2010 when we drew Toronto 0-0 at Swangard, it was still a hell of an experience and an unparalleled atmosphere. The fans weren't numerous but they were intense enough to make up for it.
That's what the few loyal supporters of FC Edmonton will get to experience, except coupled with the natural jitters and excitement of a home opener. I actually envy them, even if Toronto does romp to victory: you only get one first game, and to have it against a more exalted opponent for such high stakes will truly be something special.
Moreover, Edmonton has a lot to gain. Right now, many people in Edmonton look upon FC Edmonton with the same disparaging eyes they gave the Aviators. This includes people who should know better; local sports reporters, people whose fingers ought to be on the pulse of their community. They look at a local millionaire who's willing to invest (and lose) money, has already taken the team through a first season, and is trying to bring in competent soccer people, and see old teams owned by fly-by-night syndicates making outlandish promises and unrealistic predictions. There's no basis for that comparison, and there's decades of proof that Edmontonians enjoy and are willing to support soccer.
If FC Edmonton comes out against Toronto FC, a team they've heard of, and plays them hard... well, that'll win some potential fans after all. "Hey, this is an actual soccer team!" You're already hearing murmurs of satisfaction as FC Edmonton has beaten Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta, but that's nothing compared to fighting hard (even in a losing effort) against a big-market MLS team on national television. With the Edmonton Supporters Group, small though it is, singing and chanting and making an impact far beyond their numbers, bringing atmosphere to infamously sterile and monolithic Commonwealth Stadium.
If everything goes badly, well, that's tough but FC Edmonton will still be fine. On the other hand, if everything goes well there's a chance they'll really demonstrate their viability to the city and the country, not to mention giving those day-one supporters memories they'll never lose. That's what the Voyageurs Cup is to a minnow. It makes Vancouver debating whether to start some Residency players seem pretty insignificant in comparison.