CCL spot awaits: Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC eye Canadian Championship title

Both clubs are fighting uphill climbs to reach the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs in October, but a massive opportunity awaits Tuesday evening when Toronto FC visit Vancouver Whitecaps FC (10:30 pm ET | OneSoccer in Canada; FOX Soccer Plus in US) for this year's Canadian Championship final.

The winner books an automatic spot in the 2023 Concacaf Champions League, turning a successful Voyageurs Cup capture into a place in the regional competition that sends its victor to the FIFA Club World Cup.

Those stakes are especially front of mind for Toronto head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley, whose LAFC team made the 2020 CCL final before losing to Liga MX’s Tigres UANL. As for Toronto, they joined the long list of MLS what-could-have-beens when dropping the 2018 final to Chivas – a streak against Mexican opposition that Seattle Sounders FC snapped in May when beating Pumas UNAM.

“Everybody in the club has a history in Champions League,” Bradley remarked. “A lot was made this year when Seattle finally became the first MLS team to win. Toronto, of course, had the huge disappointment on penalties with a chance to win against Chivas Guadalajara in 2018.

“I know that we didn’t have the same format, but at LAFC we were winning 1-0 in the 70th minute or something against Tigres and didn't find a way to close the door. So I think for everybody Champions League is a huge motivation.”

The league’s three Canadian clubs can also secure a CCL spot for 2023 via MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and Eastern or Western Conference regular-season champion conquests. But each year, their most straightforward route comes via the Canadian Championship's national stage.

That runway has seen Toronto lift a record eight cup titles (including a delayed 2020 crown on June 4 because of the COVID-19 pandemic), CF Montréal do the same five times (last in 2021) and Vancouver go the distance once (in 2015). While history isn’t on Vancouver’s side, head coach Vanni Sartini said booking another CCL spot would be transformative for the Cascadian bunch.

"It means a lot, it means a lot for the club, it means a lot for me, it means a lot for the players," the Italian manager said. "Being on an international stage is special, it gives you the sensation that you were in a sort of elite. It's one of the reasons why the game tomorrow is very important. Lifting the trophy is the main reason, but qualifying for the Champions League is another reason why it's very important."

The winner joins Mexico’s Atlas, Tigres UANL, Club Leon and Pachuca in next year’s CCL, as well as Violette after the Haitian club won the 2022 Concacaf Caribbean Club Championship. There will be 16 teams in total, including up to five from MLS (three remain in the US Open Cup aside from the qualifying situations mentioned above) and six via the 2022 Concacaf League.

In looking to join that group, Toronto are coming off an emotional 4-0 win over Charlotte FC Saturday night in MLS Week 22, with nearly 30,000 fans filling BMO Field for the much-anticipated debut of Italian national team forwards Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne. The Designated Players and summertime signings will give the Reds a sizable boost if they feature, having only played 45 minutes against the expansion club.

On their visit to British Columbia, Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley expects the Whitecaps to be buzzing in front of a large partisan crowd.

“For them, the opportunity to host a final, I think they, again from little bits I pick up, I think it’s going to be a big occasion in the city on Tuesday night,” the midfielder said. “We’re really excited, a chance to win a trophy and obviously a way to get into Champions League right away for next year.”

Vancouver are looking to channel all the energy they can with 23,000 spectators and counting set for the consequential match. They’ve knocked off three Canadian Premier League sides in the competition to date, while Toronto beat one CPL outfit and then CF Montréal in the semifinals.

The Whitecaps, coming off a 3-1 loss to Chicago Fire FC in MLS inter-conference play Saturday evening, are itching to meet the occasion.

"I'm really looking forward to tomorrow, that's what I said to the players: Don't be overwhelmed by the pressure," Sartini said. "Of course it's going to be an important game, but enjoy it. It's a final. We need to win it, but I don't think we're going to win it if we don't enjoy everything – the preparation, the fact that there's going to be a lot of people, the fact that the cup is there, ready to be lifted. So this sense of anticipation, in any case, it will be a fantastic experience."