Today's the day. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC will meet at BMO Field. The winner gets the Voyageurs Cup. In the event of a 0-0 draw, Toronto takes the title. If there is a 2-2 or higher-scoring draw, Vancouver does. And if there's a 1-1 draw, we go to extra time followed by kicks from the penalty mark. Soccer fans are doubtless familiar with the routine by now.
I've been outspoken in my pessimism. I don't think the Whitecaps have the stones to get an outright win or a high-scoring draw at BMO. I want them to, of course - I madly, desperately want them to kick the holy hell out of Toronto and hold the Voyageurs Cup aloft before the FC's stunned, shell-shocked home crowd. Frankly, I want there to be a Voyageurs Cup parade down Robson, although I know that even if Vancouver does win it'll be buried on page 5,327 of the sports section behind "Canucks Trainer Has Oatmeal for Breakfast".
So what if we don't win? What if Toronto grinds out the 0-0 draw I expect them to grind out and advance for the third year running to the CONCACAF Champions League? Where does that leave us Whitecaps fans? Toronto would be Canada's representative at the continent's biggest tournament. They've never had a great run in CONCACAF to match the Montreal Impact but they've had some lovely moments. And every time they take the field, be it against the likes of Cruz Azul or the likes of Arabe Unido, they're wearing maple leaves on their shoulders. They're representing all of us.
Would Vancouver Whitecaps be smart to cheer for Toronto FC?
Yes. Yes they would.
Success in the CONCACAF Champions League for any Canadian team would reflect on the country. Indeed, to an extent it's already happened. The USL-1 Montreal Impact made a shocking run to the quarter finals in 2008-09 (and were staggeringly unlucky not to advance further; that's all I can bring myself to say about that). The home leg at the Olympic Stadium was a terrific moment for Montreal fans, where old supporters and new stood and cheered in the country's largest indoor venue and their heroes responded by playing one of the games of their lives. But that glory shone all over Canada. The soccer-loving parts of this country were almost as absorbed by the match as the Impact faithful, and in every account everywhere in the world of the staggering near-upset the articles always said "Canada's Montreal Impact".
Today, if you ask almost any non-Montreal pundit for a list of great moments in Canadian soccer, they'll include that Olympic Stadium game. No small number of Canadians who doubted the quality of our domestic clubs were convinced they could doubt no longer. Imagine if the Vancouver Whitecaps got further, or if Toronto FC made a run to the CONCACAF Champions League final in the country's largest media centre. If Toronto FC seriously challenged for the CONCACAF title, that would do the Whitecaps more good than if Vancouver won the Voyageurs Cup and promptly washed out in the CONCACAF group stage.
American fans understand this. The United States gets four berths to the CONCACAF Champions League (three through Major League Soccer and one through the US Open Cup); Canada gets just one. Two of the American teams are seeded straight into the group stage, but the plucky Canadians have to fight from the preliminary round. So the Americans have more than four times the opportunities of the Canadians to get Champions League glory, even without considering the quality of their teams. But when Real Salt Lake went on their near-miraculous run earlier this year, you could hardly drift onto Twitter without seeing #MLS4RSL trumpeted by fans of teams from Seattle to New England. It wasn't unanimous, but it was still loud.
I know cheering for the team that just beat you in the Voyageurs Cup can be tough. In 2009, when the Montreal Impact shamefully played a reserve squad against Toronto FC to snatch the Cup from Vancouver's grip, I took a little too much pleasure in watching Toronto fall to our then-leaguemates the Puerto Rico Islanders in the preliminary round. It wasn't Toronto's fault that Marc dos Santos and the Impact were a bunch of perfidious bastards, of course: in beating the Montreal reserve team 6-1 Toronto just did exactly what they should have done. But there seemed, at the time, to be a bit of karmic justice in Toronto's ensuing defeat to a fellow USL-1 team. That karmic justice, though, may have convinced a few neutral observers that Montreal's run was a fluke and Canada's professional teams really did belong in the lower tier of CONCACAF. Right now, CONCACAF considers Canada's champion on par with the second-best teams in Costa Rica and Honduras, or the El Salvadoran champion. Toronto's loss to Puerto Rico wouldn't do much to change their mind.
Hardly anybody in Canada outside of southern Ontario likes cheering for a Toronto sports team, I know. Oh, believe me, I know. But this is no different than rooting for the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series. It's about cheering for our little country up against all those big ones. It's about wanting fans in the United States and Mexico to view Canada as someone to be feared rather than a minnow to be crushed. It's about convincing could-be fans within our border that our teams are competitive on an international level. It's about much, much more than whether Toronto FC gets another prize for their trophy cabinet.
Of course it goes the other way as well. If Vancouver does get a victory and advance to the Champions League, I hope Toronto fans would be in our corner. If the Montreal Impact win the 2012 Voyageurs Cup, then I think we should all swallow our pride (and our bile) and cheer on the Impact. We can rail and hate and mock each other all we want during our national championship. But once the game leaves these borders, it must be all for one and one for all.