A year ago, as a tremendous storm beat down on Toronto, the Vancouver Whitecaps were some 30 minutes away from the Canadian soccer championship – a prize the struggling Major League Soccer expansion team held especially dear.
The Whitecaps led Toronto FC 2-1 in the two-game competition, but with lightning searing the night sky, officials halted the game in the 63rd minute. The pitch, a swampy mess in the deluge of rain, was then declared unplayable. The late May match was postponed to the next morning, but the pitch was still soaked.
When the second leg of the championship was finally played last July, Toronto overcame Vancouver, another blow to the Whitecaps in a terrible first year that ended with nothing to show for it: No Canadian championship, and last place overall in MLS.
On Monday morning, the weather for Whitecaps practice was the exact opposite of the abandoned match in the Toronto storm. The sun was bright in a blue sky, the temperature around 20 C – what passes for a hot spring day for Vancouver.
The Whitecaps, with a successful 5-3-2 record in its sophomore MLS campaign, were drubbed 4-1 on the road by New England last weekend and, after a long journey home Sunday, had a playful, light practice at their old second-tier grounds in Burnaby, complete with a series of 3-on-3 bouts of the hybrid game SoccerVolleyball.
Star striker Eric Hassli scored the goal last year that put Vancouver on the verge of victory – and felt the trophy was “stolen or something.”
“It’s our first goal this season, we really want to win,” Hassli said after practice.
“It’s everybody’s focus to win this cup. … It’s a huge step for the club if we win.”
TFC, Canadian champion each of the past three years, might need more than a torrential storm to beat Vancouver this year. The rematch starts Wednesday in Vancouver, with the second leg in Toronto next Wednesday, and the Amway Canadian Championship winner declared on aggregate goals.
The reward: a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, a lesser version of the famous European tournament, this one featuring the best clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
While Toronto has opened its MLS season in couldn’t-be-worse fashion, losing its first eight, a league record, the team has had some success in 2012. Toronto advanced the furthest of any MLS club in the 2011-12 Championship League, surprising the Los Angeles Galaxy in the quarter-finals to make the semis before losing Mexico’s Santos Laguna.
Monterrey, a top Mexican club, beat Santos in the final – its second consecutive Champions League triumph, after topping MLS’s Real Salt Lake a year earlier.
Seeing such MLS success beyond the North American league, the Whitecaps salivate. Vancouver fancies its future among the bigger names of soccer, not just on this continent, but worldwide, and the Whitecaps again have placed a tremendous emphasis on the Canadian championship with its entree to the Champions League.
For Toronto, well on pace to miss the playoffs for the sixth time in its six MLS seasons, the Canadian title is basically all it has left for which to play. For Vancouver, the Toronto matches come amid crucial MLS games (Seattle in Vancouver on Saturday and then on the road in Portland the next Saturday).
Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie rested several central defenders, including captain Jay DeMerit and Martin Bonjour, against New England. The results were terrible but the rest was key, as Rennie likely plans to use DeMerit and Bonjour in all four coming games, which take place over 11 days.
As for a Canadian championship for the multinational Whitecaps – its 30 players were born in 17 different countries – the cup is the thing.
“I don’t think it matters if it’s the Disney cup, or the Canadian cup, we want to win it,” Rennie said after practice. “We’re in the final now and that’s our absolute focus.”