'Kings of Canada': Whitecaps, Montréal look to Voyageurs Cup in bid to legitimize strong momentum
Having ascended to their throne, the Vancouver Whitecaps don't plan on relinquishing their title as 'Kings of Canada' anytime soon.
Having snapped an eight-year trophyless drought last summer when they lifted the 2022 Canadian Championship by defeating Toronto FC in a penalty shootout, the Whitecaps know that it takes a long grind to win the Voyageurs Cup. Last time out, they had to slog through three tough games against CPL opposition before their battle against the Reds, before confirming to the rest of Canada what they'd only shown in glimpses but had yet to fully prove at the time – that Vancouver are the top dogs up north.
Do you remember these scenes of wild celebration and glory, at a packed BC Place?
This feeling is what they, and every pro and semi-pro outfit across the country are chasing. The Whitecaps will have a shot at keeping that feeling alive on Wednesday night, when they host CF Montréal in the 2023 Canadian Championship final.
Confident 'Caps look to take another step up
We're a long ways away from that loss to Pacific FC back in the 2021 affair, and the sacking of head coach Marc Dos Santos that it brought. Since then, the Whitecaps have qualified for MLS playoffs and lifted a Voyageurs Cup, and have only done more to bolster their claims of being Kings of Canada this season, building off a red-hot end to 2022 to start the 2023 MLS campaign on the right foot.
Sitting as the Canadian MLS team with the most points so far this campaign, the Whitecaps have left no doubt of their status, either. They rank 15th in the MLS standings despite sitting fifth in the league in Expected Goal Difference and ninth in Expected Points: It tells the tale of a sentiment of dominance that is quickly brewing across Canada.
Don't take our word for it, though.
"I think, without a doubt, we've been the best Canadian team over the past two years," Whitecaps full back Ryan Raposo told Onesoccer ahead of the final. "Obviously, Montréal had a good run in the league last year, but we won the Canadian Championship last year, we're in the final this year, we've been really consistent at home, and I think if we could find a way to get some more points on the road, we could easily be a top four team in the West in MLS."
All it takes is a look at their journey through this Canadian Championship so far to find merit in Raposo's claim.
When they won it all last year, the Whitecaps were nearly eliminated in the quarter-finals against Cavalry away, only winning on penalties after a late equalizer. And, they only outscored pre-final opponents Cavalry, Valour and York United 5-2 en route to their clash with TFC, which they again won on penalties. History remembers results, sure... but it wasn't the prettiest path to glory.
This year, by comparison, the Whitecaps go into a final having beaten York United and Pacific FC by a combined score of 7-1 (they played one less game this year having earned a bye due to their status as champions). Given that those two teams are currently no. 3 and no. 2 in the CPL standings respectively, and the Whitecaps had to play both of those games away from home (and they hadn’t won a Canadian Championship game on the road in almost a decade before this year), it's plain to see how much this team has improved.
There's a true ruthlessness with how these Whitecaps have gone about their business. Certainly, head coach Vanni Sartini has been emboldened with confidence that only comes from sustained success. But a claim to the throne only holds true when judgement day passes.
"This game tomorrow is critical," Sartini explained to OneSoccer. "If we win tomorrow, that will be our second Canadian Championship in a row. We are a team that after the pandemic has performed well. Montréal had a fantastic season last year, of course, but in terms of being consistent, I think we've also been the most consistent team.
"I think that gives us an identity, and will hopefully get us recognition from the Canadian media. As for Canadian players? Maybe they'll go for the Whitecaps instead of going to Toronto and Montréal, because we're doing very well nationally. So (winning) is extremely important for us.”
Montréal have ambitions of their own
There are, of course, two sides to every finals story.
On the other side of this coin lies Montréal, a team looking to make a change to the Canadian soccer pecking order. Given their success in MLS play last year, and the fact that a Canadian Championship win would give them three Voyageurs Cups in the last five years, this team feels that a win on Wednesday would swing the pendulum back in their favour in the 'Kings of Canada' debate.
(Which, of course, Toronto is very much not a part of this year, to their delight, as Montréal eliminated their bitter rivals in the semi-final leading up to this final encounter).
Despite an unusually-slow start in MLS play, Montréal sit just two points behind the Whitecaps' point total, showing that while the Whitecaps have been the top Canadian team in MLS this season... it's not by much.
Even though Montréal would have every reason in the world to head into this game with the confidence of a swashbuckling favourite given their current form and their overall success in this tournament compared to the Whitecaps, this team is, instead, embracing the role of underdogs for this final. Four of their last six games in all competitions have been on the road. The Whitecaps have played in B.C. in five of their last six matches. Their last meeting ended 5-0 in Vancouver's favour. There's a point to prove here, to everyone... including themselves.
"We're not the favourites, that's clear," Hernan Losada told reporters in French on Monday. "But this is a resilient group. It's very united, there's a lot of desire, and we're going to do our best to make it a good game, because everyone in this group wants to win this trophy. But, if you look at everything that's happened over the last few weeks, and when you look at the schedule, us playing away, it's normal that Vancouver are the favourites."
We're early days in Losada's reign, so just making the final alone will feel like a step in the right direction. Getting to this point wasn't easy, either, as Montréal had lost six of their first seven games to start their 2023 campaign. But, they kept steady on course despite calls to hit the early reset button and are now sailing through calmer waters.
If they can claim a trophy win after surviving all that? You can only imagine the level of confidence that would grow among their ranks, potentially putting their campaign right back on track, despite still learning to cope with heavy losses in important player personnel.
"Winning a trophy, it's something that’s always good emotionally for the club," Montréal midfielder Mathieu Choinière explained Monday. "And for us personally, it's amazing. It's a good feeling, and it gives us confidence. So we want to go there and have that good feeling ahead of this game, of lifting a trophy."
BUT 🔔🔔#CFMTL GO UP 2-0 🍁🏆— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 9, 2023
Mathieu Choiniere sends in a PERFECT cross to find Chinonso Offor for the header, just minutes after opening the scoring vs. #TFClive#CanChamp | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/zdgGOyz47b
Along with a chance to return to the Concacaf Champions League (now the Concacaf Champions Cup, if you haven't heard!) for a third time in four seasons, one can only imagine what a Voyageurs Cup win would do for their project.
Seeing how much playing in the 2022 edition boosted the confidence of then head coach Wilfried Nancy’s team – who themselves were just entering their second season with him at the helm after winning the Canadian Championship at the end of his first campaign – you can't help but naturally draw parallels to Losada being in his first year in charge of this team, too.
This is a side that has always embraced playing in big Champions Cup games. Montréal understands the importance of taking one's opportunity to qualify for that competition, on top of the joy that winning silverware can provide.
"From a personal level, for a player beginning his career, it's always a great opportunity to go play in the Concacaf Champions Cup," Montréal goalkeeper and former CPL-er Jonathan Sirois noted. "To go play games at a high level, those are rich experiences, and those are games that as a young player, you want to play in, you want to live. And collectively, as a club, we want to win the Voyageurs Cup, not just because it’s silverware, but because it gives us the chance to go play incredible games and to create memorable experiences for the fans, like the club has done in the best."
"It's a big opportunity," Choinière added. "We want to win the final and go play in the Concacaf Champions Cup. It means a lot to win this trophy, to be the best team in Canada would be good."
The true magic of the domestic cup
All over the world, it's domestic cups, not necessary league play, that provide the groundwork for magical moments that live long in our collective memories. The magic of the FA Cup in England, for instance, is a well-documented phenomena. Our own Canadian Championship is riddled with miracle moments – hell, the Cinderella story of TSS Rovers' triumph over Valour FC came barely two months ago.
Canadians footballers know that these moments can be immense. They can even be career-defining. Sure, winning a trophy means a lot to everybody involved at a club ... but for those who might've grown up watching this tournament as a kid? It can be everything – and for good reason.
"It means a lot, for sure," Whitecaps forward Levonte Johnson told OneSoccer. "Especially for me, as it’s gotten me these opportunities that I've had with the first team. If we were to win, it'd add a bit more to my resume, too! So... hopefully we do get the win."
Johnson is a great example of what kind of platform the Canadian Championship can provide.
We've looked at the motivations of Vancouver and Montréal but at its core, this tournament is here to showcase Canadian talent.
Thats not just a sentiment. It's a clear rule that at least three Canadians must play for each team in every CanChamp game. Without this rule, Johnson, a forward playing for Whitecaps II, might not have gotten a call up to the first team when he did, might not have impressed enough in training to earn a nod, and might not have done this on his debut.
GOAL 🏔️🏔️🏔️— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 11, 2023
The ink hasn't even dried on his #VWFC contract, and Levonte Johnson scores to give his team a 3-0 lead over York in this #CanChamp QF clash 🇨🇦🏆
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgRAE pic.twitter.com/CEFLo2OC6k
Johnson now has in his hands (well, at his feet) an opportunity he might not have otherwise gotten, beyond playing in a cup final in just his third professional game. It shows the importance of not just having this tournament in the first place, but having these sorts of rules in place, too. Even beyond the ambitions of both the Whitecaps and CF Montréal, this tournament represents so much more than that, and someone like Johnson getting an opportunity like this is the perfect example of why these games are so important.
"I really appreciate the Canadian Championship giving young players like myself a chance of getting to start as you need those three Canadian players on the field," Johnson offered. His coach concurred.
"I really like the fact that we have to field three Canadians in the Canadian Championship, as it’s our national championship," Sartini noted. "And I think those guys add even more, because they have a national pride to do this. So tomorrow, you'll see one youngster slot in, and it will be beautiful for him to play in a game like this."