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Bringing Casual Fans Into the Voyageurs Cup

Most hardcore Canadian fans love the Voyageurs Cup. It was, after all, a trophy created by those same fans and their predecessors to recognize out soccer champions back in the dark days of the early 2000s, when MLS seemed like a pipe dream and our sole hope was that the Edmonton Aviators wouldn't fold before the end of their first season. Its mere existence is a tribute to the power and perseverance of the Canadian soccer supporter, to say nothing of the great national championship and our only route to the CONCACAF Champions League. It is a fantastic event.

The casual fans, however, disagree.

Last week, the Montreal Impact saw their lowest attendance of the season at Olympic Stadium for their game against rivals Toronto FC. FC Edmonton drew fewer than 3,000 fans to see the Vancouver Whitecaps at Commonwealth Stadium (their largest gate so far this season but still a disappointment). You can bet money both the Whitecaps and Toronto will have low attendances for the return legs tonight.

Some of this is inevitable. Voyageurs Cup games are always on weekdays and it would take an uncharacteristic act of heroism from the clubs, the leagues, and the Canadian Soccer Association to ever change that. And you'll never get fans in an MLS city as excited to see an NASL team because MLS's entire purpose is to convince fans that they're a vastly superior league than the NASL and just ignore the evidence of your eyes because major league!!!!

But the MLS clubs themselves do an awful job of attracting interest to the Voyageurs Cup. You'd think an organization would want as many well-attended home games as possible, and yet these Cup games are treated with barely-veiled contempt while the Champions League is an afterthought. This is an amazing competition, built up from the grass roots, featuring terrific games which all Whitecaps fans should love to death, and yet it gets a fraction of the attention it deserves.

The most important thing is for the Canadian Soccer Association to stop watering down the format. The CSA was listening to the MLS clubs when they went from a round-robin to a two-legged, two-round cup, but it still hurt the credibility and interest of the competition. Even for teams that get out of the first round a four-game Cup is over in the blink of an eye, but a six game cup against a variety of clubs with three home games for all would let the competition get some actual momentum. Fixture congestion is usually cited as the reason to avoid this, but clubs in leagues around the world can routinely play 40 to 50 games in an MLS-length season.

If you whine about two extra games making it hard for your team to complete then book a mid-season friendly against Manchester City or Liverpool, you have lost your argument forever.

That said, the clubs could do something without affecting their schedule one bit. The casual fan views the Voyageurs Cup as the thing that's added onto the end of the season ticket packages; why the MLS teams don't do more to build it up as an event is a mystery. After all, they're the ones who stand to gain attendance.

The Whitecaps have a nice webpage devoted to the Voyageurs Cup (er, sorry, the Amway Canadian Championship (spits)). Did you know it was there? I bet you didn't, since they sure aren't promoting it much. Their website and Twitter feed give less attention to Voyageurs Cup matches than to MLS regular season games and about as much as women's pre-season friendlies. And ho hum, here's my Match Day Notes e-mail from the Whitecaps. "Please note: 'Caps Kickoff will not take place before this match." Nothing to see here, just some minor league crap you certainly wouldn't want to buy a ticket for. Their unique promotion for this match amounts to GroupOn.

Some of the marketing practically writes itself. For example, it's not widely known that the Voyageurs Cup is the only route for a Canadian team to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League. American teams can make it with a good league finish or an MLS Cup victory, but only Americans. If a Canadian MLS team ever finishes in what would be an MLS CONCACAF Champions League berth, the spot will go to the next-best-placed American team according to the criteria. It's amazing how many people don't know that, and I bet a few fans will stay home from BC Place tonight because they think that, really, there's nothing on the line here.

I don't think the Voyageurs Cup is being deliberately snubbed. It's just our old Canadian inferiority complex kicking in: 25% of a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League is worth less than 3% of a berth in the MLS playoffs, because our national championship is all Canadian teams so it can't really count. Last year, Teitur Thordarson and Tom Soehn treated the Cup as their first priority and would rest players in MLS games so they'd be fresh for Toronto or Montreal: that didn't capture fan interest. This year, Martin Rennie is playing second elevens against Edmonton and might well do the same in the next round: that obviously isn't selling tickets either.

When Toronto FC visited Swangard Stadium two or three years ago, we got to work ourselves into the righteous frenzy of the overlooked underdog and packed that stadium to hate on the Eastern scum. It wasn't about the competition at all, and when Montreal visited for Voyageurs Cup games we got the usual Swangard anti-Montreal crowd (which was still a great crowd, because it was Swangard). Now we are the big, bad favourite, the bully who gives Greg Klazura his first start and still expects to win by two goals, and we haven't even got the sting of being disrespected to attract interest.

If the team can't convince people to buy tickets for this game, not that they've really tried, then the Voyageurs Cup is a great opportunity to give some away to local youth soccer programs. Paper the house a little, bring the kids in to watch the Canadian championship, and hopefully get their parents coming back with credit cards in hand. Anything is better than what's being done right now.

People who watch this competition tend to love it. That should be a lesson. Get it out there, Vancouver (and that goes for you too, Toronto and Montreal).