Thursday, June 18, 2009

Soccer: A tale of three cities

The seemingly-impossible 6-1 victory Toronto FC pulled off against the Montreal Impact tonight gives them the Voyageurs Cup, the one fact everyone can agree on. Apart from that, there's no clear lesson or moral to draw from this one, though. It means drastically different things to fans of all the teams involved, and there's no one right answer. Read on for my thoughts on what this result means to fans in each city.

Toronto: It's a great day to be a Toronto FC fan. Almost everyone wrote them off after the Vancouver game; sure, they've got a solid team, but a four-goal victory on the road is hard for any side. For a team that's suffered some significant setbacks recently, including a brutal home loss to the L.A. Galaxy, a series of fan protests and a recent roster makeover, this is a huge step forward. They finally have the CONCACAF Champions League berth they've coveted for so long, and they have some tangible silverware to show their fans. The load on Mo Johnston's shoulders just got significantly lighter; regardless of how TFC do in the remainder of the MLS season, this year will be seen as at least a partial step forward thanks to tonight's events.

Vancouver: For Vancouver fans, it's the opposite. The championship seemed in their grasp, and it would have been a perfect stepping stone on the road to MLS as well as a way to bring some well-deserved Eastern media attention to the Whitecaps. To have that ripped away by a stellar TFC performance would have been bad enough. However, the way this went down was much worse. Their old archrivals, the Montreal Impact, first decided to dress a B-squad, including former Whitecaps' backup goalkeeper Srdjan Djekjanovic. That B-squad then went on to roll over and play dead (after notching the game's first goal on a penalty) in a manner that made the Montreal Screwjob look positively fair, all but assuring TFC's triumph. The faces of head coach Teitur Thordarson and the Whitecaps in the stands told the story of the night; first joy, then cautious optimism, then worry and then disbelief.

In the end, though, Vancouver fans don't have anything to be ashamed of. Their side put in a great tournament and may have deserved the trophy. With a credible effort from Montreal, they might even have won it. There's no point in kicking themselves or their franchise over something that in the end was out of their hands. You can bet they'll be fired up for Saturday's USL game against the Impact, though.

Montreal: In many ways, Montreal fans come out of this in the worst situation. They just watched their side demonstrate that they don't care about the Voyageurs Cup when they don't have a chance to win it. The appalling effort shown by the Impact tonight gives Montreal fans nothing to be proud of, and that's made worse by their lacklustre performance handing the championship to their Toronto-based rivals. Montreal's going to take a lot of criticism over the next few days, and much of it will be deserved. That's not the fans' fault, but it's going to be awfully tough for them to defend their franchise at the moment. Tonight's showing brought back horrible memories of the Santos Laguna defeat, and perhaps was even worse. That was an Impact team that had overachieved; just making it to that point was an accomplishment, and getting any sort of result in Mexico is always difficult. Losing by six goals at home to an MLS team with a poor recent run of form? It's hard to find a way to rationalize that.

In the end, I don't think it necessarily means much for Canadian soccer as a whole. Toronto FC will make a great representative for the country in the CONCACAF Champions League, but as I argued a while ago, Vancouver would have as well. Each would bring a different audience to the table, and a run by either will be good for the game. For Toronto, their focus now shifts to the CCL; for Vancouver and Montreal, the mission's now to succeed in the USL and come back hungry for the Voyageurs Cup title next year. It's been a great, thrilling, dramatic tournament, and it's really shown that these sides at their best can compete with each other and give us some fantastic soccer to watch. In my mind, that's the most important thing to take away from this one.

[Cross-posted to Out of Left Field].

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