GANGUE-RUZIC: CPL close, but still left chasing Canadian Championship crown... for now
VANCOUVER – In the end, they all came up just short when it mattered most.
Following last night's Canadian Championship semi-finals, each of the eight competing Canadian Premier League sides have offiicially conceded in their quest to hoist the Voyageurs Cup in 2022, leaving the league still searching for its first champion of Canada.
That's nothing too unusual, of course – the CPL is just in its fourth year of existence, after all.
But this year did feel like it could produce more of an even contest, as the league's contenders – and, perhaps "disruptors" in this tournament – made way for an all-MLS final once more.
Given that for most of its existence, those clubs – CF Montréal, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps – were pretty much the Canadian Championship (shout-out to the days of just those three competing for the Voyageurs Cup), that level of dominance is expected. But, even as the competition continued to expand, that firm hold has remained steady.
In fact, with this year’s final seeing the Whitecaps and Toronto FC meet for a chance to hoist the trophy, it’ll continue a streak of every competition since 2008 having one of Toronto or Montréal finish in the top two, as well as a streak of every knockout edition of this tournament leading to a final between two MLS teams – CPL’s Forge made the 2020 final, but it was in a non-knockout format.
So while the CPL has made great strides in their short history in this competition, starting to really cause MLS teams problems on their day, they’re still yet to fully break that monopoly, although it does feel like that’s coming soon.
It only feels like a matter of time until a team will break through to the final, much less win. The early signs are there.
Just look at the performances of CPL teams this year. Unfortunately, no CPL team was able to beat an MLS team in 2022, but in the six meetings between the two leagues (if you count the 2020 final and the 2022 tournament), all but two games were decided by one goal or less, with two games finishing tied and going to penalties, which could’ve easily seen the outcomes flip around.
Plus, if you look at the five meetings between the two leagues last year, the CPL picked up one win and one draw (loss on penalties), with all but two games also being decided by one goal or less, which is also a pretty decent return there, too.
Therefore, there’s no doubt that these games are getting closer. No longer are CPL teams taking the pitch with MLS outfits and fearing them, but are instead relishing the challenge of playing such a team, and that’s showing with both their performances and their results.
Super proud of my club. Never gave up, never looked outclassed. You either win or lose, that’s futbol. Our players are only going to grow from this, how many times do 🇨🇦 players get to play MLS sides? Not often. Let’s take our lessons and start a run for the #CanPL playoffs. https://t.co/OsrfdzctSI— No Finish Sports Media (@NoFinishSports) June 23, 2022
And why not? Not only are these teams able to compete despite the discrepancies that might exist in certain aspects such as salaries, squad size and other things of the like, but there are players who can most certainly play at a higher level, too.
For example, not only did Pacific FC’s narrow 2-1 loss to Toronto FC in the semi-finals of the 2021 Canadian Championship show that the eventual 2021 CanPL champions could hang with an MLS club (especially after beating the Whitecaps in an earlier round), but considering that two of their players later got signed by TFC in Lukas MacNaughton and Kadin Chung, MLS teams are becoming fast aware that there's talent to be feared - and to be had - here.
"I think these matches are important for our country and the growth of our sport," CanMNT and Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio said earlier this year of this tournament.
"It’s great for our country, for the CPL, and for Canadian soccer."
The next step for these CPL clubs in this competition? Really finding a way to capitalize on these opportunities to play MLS teams, especially in games where those MLS sides aren't necessarily at their best.
Of course, when the MLS sides are rolling, they’re hard to beat, as one would expect, but as teams showed this year, that doesn’t make them unbeatable. The Whitecaps are one of the hottest teams in MLS right now, yet Cavalry and York made them sweat in the quarter-finals and the semi-finals, while Toronto nearly fell at the hands of the HFX Wanderers in the quarter-finals, with only a late goal allowing them to emerge victorious.
In those games, however, the CPL sides were left wanting at certain moments, such as a missed chance offensively, or a sloppy sequence defensively, giving their counterparts a lifeline. Therefore, in 2023, the goal will have to be to not let any chances such as those go wanting, allowing them to continue their push towards that first CPL CanChamp crown.
As CPL teams continue to make waves abroad – with more players getting transfers to big clubs – as well as in CONCACAF, such as when Forge qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, the next step for them is to find that next level within Canada’s top cup competition.
With the ever-continuing growth of the Canadian Championship, disrupting the monopoly that continues to rule that competition would be a key next step in its evolution, something that the CPL teams are getting closer than ever to achieving with their latest play.
So might we see a CPL team hoist the Voyageurs Cup in 2023? It’s far too early to tell, but you know they’ll push for it, allowing them to build off their endeavours so far in this competition.
"These CPL teams are good," Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini said this week after his clash with York.
"It's awesome. I’m happy that the state of Canadian football is good because a York team, one that is not dominating the CPL, still came here and did a very honest game against an MLS, so as someone working in Canadian football, I'm happy to see those kinds of things."