OBETZ, Ohio – For the teams and fans involved with the Trillium Cup, the “rivalry” has always been more about name than substance.
Columbus are MLS originals, while Toronto were a flashy expansion team at the time. The clubs were separated by just a pair of Great Lakes and in closer proximity than a lot of other league rivals. Thus, the Trillium Cup was born, lending its name to a rare flower found in both areas of North America.
But for the first 10 years of the “rivalry,” it didn’t mean much to either side, largely because Toronto had never even been to the MLS Cup Playoffs until 2015, while Columbus had regularly been a competitive side.
"It doesn't matter how much money they spend, they just keep falling on their face,” said Crew Union supporters group co-founder John Clem in 2015. “Until they actually show they can do something, it's hard to take them seriously.”
Now, as the clubs face their first ever playoff matchup with the right to host MLS Cup on the line, it’s no stretch to say the teams’ impending two-game series represents the most important Trillium Cup duel ever, and it’s not particularly close.
“It’s the first time that this game has really, really meant something,” Columbus defender Josh Williams said. “This one has much more implications.”
Williams is a special case in this edition of the rivalry. The Ohio native played for Columbus from 2010 to 2014, and played for Toronto from 2015 to 2016. Now, he’s back in Columbus and relishing his role in the series.
“From a personal level, it’s everything you can dream of,” he said. “You go from one [rival] to another and you end up playing them in the Conference Final.”
For Justin Meram, Columbus’ longest-tenured player, the Trillium Cup has become more about the differences in the franchises than important playoff meetings, meaning it’s already important.
“They’re built differently than we are,” he said. “The amount of money they’ve spent on three players – or maybe one player – matches our whole salary. So they’re built differently and successful, and you give them credit, but we’re completely different. I think that’s what makes a great matchup.”
And while Toronto’s 2016 MLS Cup loss was well-documented, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Columbus had a similar experience on their home field just a year earlier. For Meram, those dueling stories of redemption add another layer to the matchup.
“They lost in 2016 in the finals and we lost in 2015,” he said. “So we’re both dealing with disappointment, and want to correct that. And whoever wins this is hosting, so there’s even more on the line.”
For Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter, who’s rarely interested in injecting extra meaning into a match, the Trillium-Cup factor of the Eastern Conference Finals pales in comparison to what’s on the line.
“To me, the fact that it’s a rival or the Trillium Cup opponent, you don’t need to add much to it,” he said. “This is going to be a great series.”