Thursday, June 04, 2009

What a Whitecaps win could mean

That Vancouver Whitecaps - Toronto FC clash on Tuesday was quite the match. Both sides had plenty of chances and played some excellent soccer. With a few different bounces, it could have been a very different result; a draw was very possible, and even a TFC win could have happened. Still, Vancouver played a fantastic match and deserved the win in my books.

It was a 2-0 final score in favour of the Whitecaps that could pave the way for a Voyageurs Cup title (if Toronto can't beat Montreal by four in the final match), but what it all means is still very much in dispute. Some see this as a dramatic shift in the USL/MLS balance of power, while others argue that it just demonstrates that the leagues were always closer than many thought. Others, like Duane, see it as more of an outlier. Personally, I don't think it's a good idea to draw absolute conclusions from one match, but looking at the games over the last couple of years can be more meaningful.

Last year's matches would seem to suggest that the Canadian USL teams (Montreal and Vancouver, historically some of the better USL sides) aren't that far behind the Canadian MLS team (Toronto FC, one of the weaker MLS teams last season). This year's competition is actually a better sign for USL fans, though, as you have two sides in Vancouver and Montreal that seemed to have taken a step back towards the middle of the USL pack this season and a Toronto FC side that seemed to have improved considerably. It's a reasonably small number of matches, so drawing absolute conclusions still isn't a good plan, but I'd suggest that the MLS - USL talent gap isn't as huge as many people think. MLS is still the better league in my mind and certainly has the more talented top-end players, but the top USL players are pretty close to the middle-to-bottom MLS players. Also, USL teams tend to be more about a solid lineup top to bottom rather than one focused around a few stars, which benefits them in discussions of league quality. MLS is a higher-quality league, but the gap isn't that terribly wide.

Another aspect to consider is what this means for Canadian soccer. Duane laid out a good defence of his belief that it's negative in the comments of his post. I don't agree with him that Toronto FC would necessarily attract far more viewers or attention in the CONCACAF Champions League, though. For one thing, TFC have struggled to draw viewers all year; they recently got 76,000 viewers [Chris Zelkovich, The Toronto Star] on CBC for the match against New England a couple of weeks ago, better than some of their broadcasts this year (they've barely surpassed 50,000 at times and didn't crack Zelkovich's weekend Top 10 last week). That's not to bash TFC, but merely to show that they aren't any sort of huge national draw yet. They have a lot of support in Toronto itself, the GTA and to some extent in the rest of Ontario, but they aren't exactly pulling in masses from across the country.

You could argue that all of that will change in the CONCACAF Champions League, but I'm not sure it will. For all the hype around this tournament, it's hardly accessible to the casual fan; even many committed soccer fans haven't heard of the clubs or players involved, so it's not the world's easiest sell. Sure, you can also claim that it's a tournament that ends in the winner getting to face off against clubs like Barcelona. We had quite the debate on that in the May 27 Montreal - Vancouver live blog, and my point remains the same; the World Club Championship is not the club championship of the world in my mind. That's decided in Europe each spring between some of the best teams in the world; the WCC is more of an opportunity for clubs from other regions to play against those squads, and that's interesting in its own right, but not a pure championship.

That's not to diminish the CONCACAF Champions League. It's a great initiative and a very cool chance to see a Canadian side take on clubs from other CONCACAF countries. I just think it would be a harder sell in Toronto and across the country than some would argue. Getting current Toronto FC fans on side would not be a problem at all, but there's always so much going on in the city that it's tough to mobilize a vast amount of interest in any one particular event. The best quote I've ever heard on the matter is from Gordon Smeaton, vice-president of NFL International, who I profiled for a piece in the Queen's Alumni Review last fall. We were discussing some of the issues around NFL games in Toronto, and he commented that "Toronto isn't a sports city, it's an entertainment city." The hardcore fans will follow their teams through thick and thin, but much of the city's population is only about the big-ticket athletic events, the ones that promise spectacle that transcends the realm of sport into entertainment. I don't think the CONCACAF Champions League is at the point where it can be sold that way yet. CONCACAF matches in Toronto would be important, but I'm not sure they'd rise that far above regular TFC matches.

The other side of that is it's very difficult to sell a Toronto sports team to the rest of the country. It does sometimes work; the Blue Jays had a truly national following in the early 1990s and maintain some of that today, and the Raptors have recently made strides in that area, plus the Leafs still have fans across the country. Anyone who's lived in parts of Canada outside of Toronto knows there's a lot of resentment towards the Big Smoke, though. That resentment's perhaps especially acute in soccer given how Toronto nabbed an MLS team before Montreal or Vancouver, two cities with arguably better records of supporting North American soccer. Whether that's fair or not is up for debate, but the point is that I doubt you'd see masses of Canadians across the country suddenly falling in line to cheer for TFC in the CONCACAF Champions League.

That doesn't mean that Vancouver will necessarily draw more support from across the country if they manage to claim this year's Voyageurs Cup title, but there is a chance they might. For one thing, there's a lot less hostility towards Vancouver in general and the Whitecaps in particular. Plenty of soccer fans across the country admire what Greg Kerfoot and Bob Lenarduzzi have done in Vancouver, particularly with regards to the outstanding academy system and the team's upcoming entry to MLS. For another thing, I'd argue that the Whitecaps have a bigger presence across B.C. than Toronto FC do across Ontario. Part of that is because they've been around for a longer period of time and are closely tied to clubs across the province; another part of it is because cities in the B.C. interior and on Vancouver Island have historically shown a lot of support for Vancouver teams, whether in the NHL, CFL or USL. I've got a feeling that people from across B.C. will be eager to watch a team from their province take on ther rest of North America. That support could extend eastward as well; the Whitecaps have a good relationship with fans in Edmonton from the various matches they've played there over the years, and plenty of Canadian soccer fans from the prairies are also interested in the club.

Even fans from Montreal and points east may get on the Whitecaps bandwagon; there was a good deal of West Coast support for the Impact last year despite the historical rivalry between the clubs, and that will be remembered. Moreover, the team's success is a good underdog story, and everyone loves those. Duane sarcastically commented that the Whitecaps "slayed big, bad TFC", but there's an element of truth to that depiction. Toronto FC have been the 800-pound gorilla on the Canadian soccer landscape since their inception, and there are plenty of people who are happy to see them taken down a peg. For many Canadian soccer fans outside the GTA, it may be easier to get behind an underdog team like the Whitecaps than the disliked TFC.

Moreover, the timing of this is almost perfect given Vancouver's upcoming entry into MLS. There's already a lot of buzz around their MLS debut in 2011, but what better way to build interest could there be than a run in the CCL? The team already gets a lot of coverage in the local media outlets; expect that to intensify during this tournament, and expect the team to become an even bigger deal in the city than they already are. Yeah, the timing of the Olympics will detract a bit from that, but keep in mind that professional and amateur sport fans are rather distinct; there should still be plenty of interest in the Whitecaps despite the hubbub around the Olympics.

In the end, I don't think you can really say absolutely that a Vancouver triumph in the Voyageurs Cup would be bad for the game in Canada. It will certainly help soccer out West and should build interest in the Whitecaps ahead of their MLS debut. It's certainly up for debate if a win by TFC or Montreal would have helped Canadian soccer more, and I don't think there's really a definitive answer to that question at this point. A championship for any of the Canadian teams brings a unique set of benefits and challenges, and it's difficult to weigh them against each other, especially as many of the elements involved (fan interest locally, fan interest nationally, TV ratings, etc) are highly hypothetical at the moment.

I do have one final thought on the matter, though. In my mind, one of the things that holds Canadian soccer back is that the different groups of fans are always clashing. There's plenty of belittling of Vancouver and Montreal from the TFC side, and the USL fans respond with MLS and TFC-bashing. You get supporters of the men's national team criticizing the resources given to the women's team and vice-versa. In some ways, it reminds me of the provincialism that's held the CSA back for so long. That's a big part of the reason why I don't consider myself a fan of any one Canadian side at the moment; I grew up supporting the Whitecaps and initially cheered for TFC when they joined MLS, but I've tried to become more objective now that I'm regularly covering the sport. In my mind, that gives me a more balanced perspective and allows me to think more analytically, and it helps to see where fans of both sides are coming from.

That's not to say that everyone should abandon partisan interests altogether; that passion's great, and it's fantastic to see it represented at games such as the Vancouver - Toronto clash. Rivalries help to sell the sport, and that's always a good thing. It can lead to great writing as well; Duane does a fantastic job of covering TFC from a fan's perspective, and he brings a different form of insight to the game in the process, one that's highly valuable.

I do think that some fans allow the rivalries to colour their whole thinking, though, and in my mind, that's not a good thing. Being a Toronto FC fan doesn't mean that you have to hate the Whitecaps and Impact, and the reverse applies as well. All three clubs are doing great things for the sport in Canada.

If the Whitecaps do happen to win this competition, I'm not saying that everyone should jump on the bandwagon. I've always found the "Canada's team" logic highly artificial in hockey, and the same applies to soccer. If you feel the urge to root for any group of Canadians against outsiders, great; if you don't, that's just fine as well.

What I would like to see is a bit of a moderation in the tone on all sides. For Toronto fans, it's not the end of the world that TFC didn't pull this one off. Vancouver and Montreal are still good teams even if they don't play in the same league as your side, and upsets do happen. For Vancouver fans, there's no need to gloat or start claiming that the USL's better than MLS; the Whitecaps' performance thus far is impressive enough for what it is on its own without further embellishment or extrapolated conclusions. For Montreal fans, there's no need to glory in TFC's downfall. In the end, each of the clubs is doing good things for Canadian soccer, and fans of each side should appreciate that the others have important roles to play as well.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]


  1. Sorry Andrew, that last paragraph is not how sports work for the majority of dedicated fans. Sure, the casual fan will jump from bandwagon to bandwagon but a fan of TFC isn't going to embrace the others especially in light of the abuse that comes towards TFC, the Leafs, and Toronto in general from the other two cities.

    And I don't see anything wrong with that. Good for Vancouver, I hope they enjoy the run but I am irate that it's not Toronto again.

  2. Hey, there's nothing wrong with that approach either. Like I said, no one has to jump on any bandwagons; I'd just like to see a little less bashing of the other Canadian teams on all sides. No one has to go along with that either, though; just my thoughts.