VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Vancouver Whitecaps' quest to retain their Amway Canadian Championship crown gets underway on Wednesday night when they travel to face NASL side the Ottawa Fury in the first leg of their semifinal (7:30 pm ET; TSN1 in Canada, MLS LIVE in the US).
After suffering seven years of heartache in the competition, including runners-up finishes on five occasions, the Whitecaps finally lifted their first Voyageurs Cup last season, defeating the Montreal Impact 4-2 on aggregate in the final.
The victory meant a lot to everyone connected with the club, and now that they've had that taste of domestic success, it's a title Vancouver aren't going to give up without a fight.
"It's always special when you win a trophy," 'Caps coach Carl Robinson told MLSsoccer.com. "I've been very lucky that I've won the Canadian Championship before [as a player], but to the club, to the people that have been here for a number of years, it was a special moment.
"It's one that they will treasure and it's one that I will use for motivation to try and retain it this year because we don't want to be a team that wins it one year and then doesn't win it for the next four or five. We want to try and consecutively win it. So we'll have a good go at winning it again because it meant everything last year."
The competition creates an annual conundrum: how should the Whitecaps manage their roster for the competition, especially at the semifinal stage? Past years have seen a second-string team fielded for the semis, and this season looks to be no different.
Still, Robinson has named a number of players to his 20-man roster with plenty of first team experience, although the focus is firmly on giving his younger players, especially the Canadian ones, a chance to shine.
One of those will be 15-year-old striking starlet Alphonso Davies, who has been impressing with the 'Caps USL side WFC2. Davies knows how much the opportunity could mean to his career aspirations if he impresses Robinson.
"It's a big opportunity for me," Davies said. "I just want to go out there and show him that I can compete at that level. Hopefully I can be a first-team player in the future. They've just told me, if I get in, have fun. Do what I know."
There will also be a number of fringe players on the Whitecaps' MLS roster who will be keen to impress and force themselves into Robinson's plans. Among them is Homegrown midfielder Ben McKendry, who is "ecstatic" to finally make his first-team debut.
Robinson said that the 23-year-old was "knocking on the door" of the MLS team last season before a knee injury and surgery ended his campaign. Now he's back to his best and looking to make an impression against Ottawa.
"It's an opportunity for me to showcase myself," McKendry said. "I've developed a lot, even over the time when I was injured. I was watching, studying the first-team games and trying to get better, even though I was not playing. Now, I'm looking forward to being involved and getting some opportunities."
McKendry, along with the likes of Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese, have been staples on the Whitecaps unbeaten USL side this season, and WFC2 coach Alan Koch knows exactly what they're capable of. He is delighted to see them get a chance to show it now with the first team and has a clear message for them.
"It's the same if you play a USL game or ACC or Champions League or MLS," Koch said. "When you get that chance, you better be ready for it, and that's the hard part. We train every single day to prepare the players for those games. That's the importance of training. Get yourself ready, and when you have a chance, make sure you're ready to take it."