The Throw-In: It's time for a true Canadian Open Cup
And then there were two.
Which would be a little more impressive if you ignore the fact that we only started with four.
In two weeks’ time, Canada will crown either Toronto FC or Vancouver Whitecaps FC as its club champion, thereby submitting its entry into the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League. It’s a plum prize, obviously, and one that TFC showed gives a club the opportunity to do amazing things.
Yet it’s still a major trophy awarded after a four-team tournament. That just doesn’t seem right.
With three MLS teams North of the Border, another in the second-tier NASL and a second to come in Ottawa in the next couple years – not to mention the ever-growing and improving ranks of amateur clubs in Canada – why haven’t we figured out a better way to do this?
Canada has grown so much in soccer terms over the last decade. The game has never been healthier, the country is set to host the Women’s World Cup in three years and even FIFA president Sepp Blatter says the big ticket – the men’s World Cup – may not be far behind.
So why can’t Canada do what the rest of the world does, and have a good old-fashioned Canadian Open Cup tournament? Its time has come, says former national team captain Jason deVos.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in soccer around the country, and the idea would be welcomed with open arms by the soccer community,” the TSN pundit tells MLSsoccer.com. “There’s a lot of interest in something like this.”
And it’s not just the amateur community. Frank Yallop wants to see it. So does Pat Onstad. And now, finally, so does the president of the Canadian Soccer Association.
Earlier this week Victor Montagliani, in his first address to the Canadian media as newly elected CSA president, said it’s time to organize and open up the Amway Canadian Championship to the point where it’s a fuller field that includes professional and amateur clubs.
“That happens everywhere else in the world,” he said.
And that should be music to the Canadian fan’s ear. Montagliani was championed by much of Canada’s soccer community as a “soccer guy,” one who won’t necessarily put dollar signs before a belief in the game and its growth potential. His victory is perhaps a sign that a Canadian Open Cup may not be too far away (though he does have a long to-do list in a country where the game has lots of room to grow).
But before we go dreaming of a romantic tournament like England’s FA Cup, where a Wimbledon can slay a giant like Liverpool and send supporters into rapture, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome.
For one, it’s a matter of volume. The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is probably the easiest model to follow, in which 64 clubs enter a main draw that stretches across four tiers of the American soccer pyramid. Canada’s infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, with only four full-time professional teams (Ottawa an eventual fifth).
Then there are the economic realities. With that smaller sample set of amateur clubs, it’s a good bet a giant-killer would have to make a monstrous trip across the country at some point for a match. Pity the Newfoundland provincial champions, for instance, who would have to make a long journey to face the Whitecaps at BC Place – airfare that often costs upwards of $800 a head with two layovers.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“If given the opportunity, I’d do everything in my power to assemble the resources needed to throw our hats into ring and compare ourselves against the big clubs,” says Dino Rossi, the president of Milltown FC, an amateur club outside Toronto that sits essentially in the sixth tier of Canadian soccer.
Beyond the obvious carrot of measuring yourself against the big boys, Rossi adds, there’s also a unique trickle-up effect that could have long-term effects in Canada.
“I think a lot of small clubs, just for the prestige of being in same the tournament as TFC, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton, would be willing to throw their hats into the ring knowing full well that, like in the FA Cup, the minnows get weeded out early,” he adds. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. That helps build stronger culture in the game, especially at the senior level. It would make a lot of senior groups take their operations more seriously.”
So what’s the solution? While a giant 64-team field is near impossible now, there are ways to change up the Canadian Championship in the near-term to make it more inclusive. Deal in Canada’s teams in the lower-tier CSL and PDL and you’ve as many as another 20 clubs. Offer spots to the amateur provincial champions and that’s another potential eight to 10 entrants.
Very quickly, we could be talking about a tournament with an easy minimum of eight teams and as many as 16 or more.
It’s a big ask of the CSA – as Rossi points out, “There’s not an abundance of money being thrown at Canadian soccer right now” – but the good news is that a true Canadian Open Cup is an idea with too much momentum and too much support behind it to be dismissed offhand.
And at long last, the man at the top agrees.
“The timeframe of that, I don't know,” Montagliani admitted, “but I think the more we build out the professional game, the more likelihood [there is] of the Amway Championship growing in conjunction with that."
Very soon, that Voyageurs Cup will feel a lot heavier in the champions’ hands. And with so much more on the line, that’s the right idea.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.