1 reason why YOUR team can win the 2023 Canadian Championship
The 2023 Canadian Championship is set to begin anew, starting with the OFFICIAL DRAW available on OneSoccer & OS YouTube on January 31 (8PM ET / 5PM PT), where we'll find out the bracket, match-ups and more in the Battle of the North.
Domestic cup competition brings with it a special sort of sporting magic, where every team has a chance at doing the impossible. With that spirit in mind, let's go from west coast to east to take a look at each of the contenders – and offer one reason or factor they could bring to the table to secure the Voyageurs Cup.
1 Reason why: 'For the Isle' in a year of Mainland B.C. attention
Starting on Vancouver Island, Pacific FC enter the 2023 Canadian Championship facing stiff odds, and undergoing a crucial rebuilding period. Losing star forward Marco Bustos will not be easy to overcome – this team hasn't quite recovered from losing Wero Diaz yet – but adding Easton Ongaro to the mix helps restore some of the goal-scoring deficit. Like Amer Didic, Ongaro has plenty to prove, and has proven himself to be a game-changer. Coupled with Manny Aparicio, Pacific still boasts two of the Canadian Premier League's most potent attacking threats.
The roster is still thin, so this prediction is predicated upon the acquisition of a few more key starters, but regardless, if Pacific FC has any hope of lifting the Voyageurs Cup, they'll need something to galvanize the squad ... and in a year where their natural CPL rival emerges, a bit of Van Isle pride would do the trick. If James Merriman can find a Bustos replacement, this is still a team that can compete on their day.
1 Reason why: The defending champs have only gotten better as roster settles into place.
There's been plenty of (outgoing) player movement at the Whitecaps, but that's not necessarily cause for too much concern ... and while the 'Caps missed out on the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs, there's more to the story there, too. This team, seemingly always in flux over 2021 and 2022, now boasts sufficient quality throughout the squad. In fact, with mid-season acquisitions Julian Gressel and Alessandro Schöpf finally settled in alongside Andrés Cubas in midfield and Pedro Vite, Brian White and Ryan Gauld expected to start together up top, the Whitecaps' core looks solid pushing forward. Add in some much-needed backline reinforcements in the form of Mathías Laborda, and you've got a team with what looks like the highest floor of any in the competition.
The question, instead, is how high their ceiling is. After two years of calculated roster building and pre-season in Spain restoring full fitness, Whitecaps supporters should expect a deep run and a repeat for the Voyageurs Cup, even if Vanni Sartini is eyeing an MLS playoff run in 2023. Question marks remain in goalkeeping, and another no. 9 to replace Lucas Cavallini would be welcome, but even without? This team looks solid.
1 Reason why: CPL expansion magic tells newest Canadian soccer Cinderella story.
It seems Canadian soccer fans have been blessed with miraculous wins and success-laden memories over the last few years, between Olympic gold medals and World Cup Qualification dominance, MLS Cup glory and heroics in the Champions League, and that Canadian underdog story could continue on here as the Canadian Premier League expands to mainland B.C.
Okay, so an expansion team winning the Voyageurs Cup in their first year isn't likely, per se... but if Vancouver FC pulls it off, it'll be a story cut from the same cloth as all those special moments we've enjoyed over the last decade, and would require that same sprinkling of odds-defying miracle wins that made all those other moments possible, too. So... fingers crossed, Vancouver FC fans.
TSS Rovers FC
1 Reason why: There's experience in grinding out a finals victory here.
If Vancouver FC is facing stiff odds, just imagine how TSS Rovers fans feel.
Facing, perhaps, the longest of long shots at the Voyageurs Cup, the winners of the fledgling League 1 B.C. bring with them something quite valuable in a tournament setting; getting to a penalty shoot-out, and going 5-for-5 from the spot. That's exactly how this squad won their Championship final over regular season table leaders Varsity FC, and that grind-it-out mentality is perfect for a competition like this, too. Treat each game like a final, defend for your lives, take the game to shootouts, and win it from the spot – boring though it may be to watch, sometimes that's all it takes to claim the top prize. Few will remember how you did it, anyway!
1 Reason why: Tommy Wheeldon Jr.'s master plan finally bears fruit, five years on.
For five years, Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has been building Cavalry FC into a team that promises to capture the title, but burns out before they can truly make a case for it. Since finishing atop the regular season table in 2019 and losing the inaugural final to Forge, Cavalry FC haven't returned to the end point. Instead, Forge defeated HFX Wanderers FC in 2020, Pacific FC claimed glory over Forge in 2021, and Atlético Ottawa hosted Forge but ultimately suffered defeat in 2022. Cavalry FC was nowhere to be found over the last four years, yet remain a title favourite year-over-year. Why is that?
There remains a sense that each season could be the season for Cavalry FC – the year is finally all comes together. Much of that sentiment is driven by Wheeldon Jr., the personable tactician who gives an aura of eventual greatness. His path to glory has been significantly more trialing than those of his peers, but he remains steadfast as one of the last remaining CPL originals in his hunt for glory. And, as he's proven against MLS opposition, he can upset giants. With a tournament window preventing long-haul burnout and a perennial spirit of belief, coupled with a strong core of familiar teammates boasting plenty of pedigree, this could be the year for Calgary ... if they can stay healthy.
1 Reason why: Something weird happens with Winnipeg when it comes to scoring goals.
Did you notice something strange with Valour FC in 2022?
If you missed it, you'd be forgiven. It wasn't a trend that was particularly obvious until end-of-year reflection. But when looking back at the Top 10 goals scored in the 2022 CPL season... nine of them involved Valour FC. Whether it was Sean Rea's solo stunners or the opposition carving Valour's backline apart, wherever Valour FC plays, beatiful goals tend to follow. This double-edged sword could be an unorthodox advantage in the Canadian Championship, where games are often won or lost on the thinnest of margins. Sometimes, all you need is a little bit of magic (even if Rea doesn't return), and if Valour FC can channel (to their benefit) some more of that golazo-calling spirit? Who knows! A jaw-dropping bicycle kick that brings your home support to raucous fervour does more than change a scoreline, after all.
1 Reason why: This team knows how to win titles.
Champions, 2019, 2020, 2022.
... And not much has changed in the squad. Need we say more? Bobby Smyrniotis has built a team that knows how to win, goes out and wins, and doesn't get complacent even after they win. If there's any one CPL team most likely to make a play for the Voyageurs Cup, it's the reigning champs from 2022.
1 Reason why: Big-money roster bringing big-time expectations.
There's not much time left for Toronto FC to prove themselves. After bringing on Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi to much fanfare in 2022, this has to be the season that the Reds pull it all together if they are to challenge the dominance of Sebastian Giovinco's 2017-2018 run – or, at least, erase the memory of 2022. This is it, and a Canadian Championship trophy midway through the year is the perfect place to start.
This isn't to say that one or two players alone can win you a championship, as the Reds discovered last year. To that end, Bob Bradley has brought in a number of complimentary pieces to bolster his lineup, including goalkeeper Sean Johnson, defenders Matt Hedges and Raoul Petretta alongside on-loan Canadian international Richie Laryea, and midfielder Victor Vazquez, while re-signing Jonathan Osorio.
Will it be enough? Time will tell ... if Toronto has the luxury of it, anyway.
York United FC
1 Reason why: Plenty of players... with plenty to prove.
On paper, York United might boast the best squads in the CPL, with players like Elijah Adekugbe, Max Ferrari, Michael Petrasso, Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare, Niko Giantsopoulos, Brian Wright, Mo Babouli, Austin Ricci, Osaze De Rosario and Roger Thompson all ranking among the finest talents in their respective positions across the league.
Add to the mix newcomers like left-back Lassana Faye, centre-back Tass Mourdoukoutas replacing Dominick Zator, and Oussama Alou stepping in for Isaiah Johnston and you've got the makings of a solid team, front-to-back ... and all of whom, individually, have something to prove. Whether they're former MLS players taking on their old clubs, or young and hungry footballers with immense potential, York United has quietly assembled a squad of mercenaries. If they can fulfil their potential, who knows how far they can fly.
Vaughan Azzurri SC
1 Reason why: Unbeaten streak rolling over into 2023?
Quick show of hands – how many Canadian soccer teams went completely undefeated in 2022?
If you guessed just the one, you'd be correct. Vaughan Azzurri SC went 18-3-0 (W-D-L) in the 2022 League1 Ontario season, then followed it up with a 2-1 win over Simcoe County Rovers in the playoff semi-finals, followed by a 5-1 (!) win over Blue Devils FC in the final. If form and form alone were the determinant factor in Canadian Championship success, only FC Laval's two losses (one in-season, one in the PLSQ final) come close. In fact, this Vaughan team was so successful, the Halifax Wanderers decided to scoop up head coach Patrice Gheisar as a result ... as well as the team's top scorer, Massimo Ferrin.
Clearly, there's something special happening in Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller's old stomping grounds. If they can keep it going in 2023? Sky's the limit.
1 Reason why: The nation's capital is hungry, and they're rebuilding once more.
Losing a final is never easy. Losing a final at home in front of a record crowd on a day of celebration for soccer in your city to a provincial rival is even harder. You can bet Atlético Ottawa will be hungry for more in 2023, as such.
All the pieces are there, except Ballou Tabla, of course ... and 13 other players. At the moment, Atlético Ottawa only have 12 players listed on their roster. Some declined or expired contracts are expected to re-sign, but beyond the core of the squad, head coach Carlos González is once again rebuilding. The last time they did so, Ottawa went from last to first. This time around? They'll hope to reach even higher heights.
1 Reason why: Star player departures don't hurt deep squad of top quality.
Normally, a team that loses its starting right-back, attacking midfielder, winger/forward and its most promising young player in the course of one offseason has to regroup and find ways to recover, and replacing Alistair Johnston, Djordje Mihailovic, Joaquín Torres and Ismaël Koné certainly won't be easy. But this is a deep squad, and in Aaron Herrera and Rudy Camacho, CF Montréal have options to bolster their backline. Sean Rea returns on loan from Valour and, should he bring his CPL form to MLS, he could be a player worth watching for, too.
After that? Not much has changed. Could Montréal use a new Designated Player? Sure. Do they need one to win the Voyageurs Cup? Not really. This team works as a unit, and if new head coach Hernán Losada can build on that team-first approach, CF Montréal remains a force.
1 Reason why: Canada's best team-on-the-rise story takes next step up.
No team in Canada has been as brutally efficient as FC Laval was during the 2022 PLSQ season.
Suffering just one single loss in 22 matches, scoring 52 goals and conceding a paltry 13, with Adama Makan Sissoko, Riad Bey and Josué Desire Youta all contributing fairly across the score-sheet makes FC Laval a well-rounded threat, despite their lower-league status. PLSQ coach of the year Boubacar Coulibaly has quietly assembled a fearsome outfit hungry for more success, particularly after their Coupe PLSQ finals loss to AS Blainville – a stain on an otherwise remarkable 2022 campaign. That loss could prove beneficial, though, as the sting of defeat can often serve as a wonderful motivator. Do not count FC Laval out.
HFX Wanderers FC
1 Reason why: Patrice Gheisar's big-league introduction starts with a bang.
New HFX Wanderers FC head coach Patrice Gheisar is a familiar face to those who support another one of this year's competitors. The former Vaughan Azzurri tactician joins the CPL outfit with a lot to prove. He brought with him a protégé from Vaughan in top scorer Massimo Ferrin, and has the makings of a clear plan. There's new life in Halifax, and it starts with a new boss at the helm.
Here's another factor to consider: Of all the new acquisitions in the Canadian Premier League, the signing of Lorenzo Callegari is, perhaps, the most intriguing. The former Paris Saint-Germain and Genoa midfielder joins Halifax looking to turn heads and become a star. Between his skillset and pedigree and Gheisar's tactical acumen – coupled with some of the best supporters in the country – Halifax could surprise more than a few onlookers. If there's a dream run somewhere in the CPL, Halifax would certainly be the funnest locale, too.