TORONTO – Another day; another big match.
Days removed from a 2-2 draw in Atlanta on Saturday, Toronto FC are already in Vancouver preparing for the next match, yet another heavy with implication.
TFC will meet Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Wednesday night in the opening leg of their Canadian Championship final series that will determine which side will lift the Voyageurs Cup.
“It's a good series,” said Greg Vanney before departing for Atlanta. “They're a good team, [have] got players who can do interesting things.”
“We're going to have to keep an eye on [Alphonso] Davies, he's a handful, especially as his confidence is soaring. We need to have a good sense and a plan to make sure we're accounting for him along with the other guys they have,” added Vanney. “It's an important series for us. How we manage the first game and set ourselves up for the second game is going to be important.”
Heading in, national attention will be on the 17-year-old starlet, who will close out the season with Vancouver having been transferred to perennial German Champions, FC Bayern Munich.
Vanney recounted the teenager's assets: “Athleticism, soccer ability, and he's confident: like a man would be stepping into a game.”
Davies has five goals and ten assists on the season, including a two-goal, two-assist night in Vancouver's 4-2 win over Minnesota United shortly after the move was announced.
“He's very certain of himself and what his abilities are,” added Vanney. “That's a big part of making the transition from youth soccer to professional soccer. He stepped into the [All-Star] Game and immediately looked extremely comfortable on the field with those players. That's a very mature thing for a young player to be able to do. It's impressive.”
Toronto went into the lion's den on the weekend, scoring late to ensure a 2-2 draw with Eastern Conference leaders Atlanta. The match extended their unbeaten run to five matches, encompassing both legs of the semifinals against Ottawa Fury FC and a home-and-away series against the Chicago Fire.
TFC will be looking to build off that momentum in Vancouver as they brace for another busy spell. After Wednesday's match, they return home to face NYCFC on Sunday at BMO Field and then welcome Vancouver for the decisive second leg ahead of another long road trip to visit the San Jose Earthquakes.
“If we're able to build off a good performance in Atlanta, the spirit we had in that, the ability to come back at late stage, we'll be able to give ourselves a positive result to come back to Toronto,” laid out Liam Fraser. “We want a result out here in Vancouver.”
Said Jordan Hamilton: “We've been in a groove lately; we need to carry that through to Vancouver.”
“They've got a lot of attacking threats: Yordy Reyna, Davies, Kei [Kamara] and players like this,” continued Hamilton. “Be defensively sound and together; we'll be fine. We went there and won my first Canadian Championship when Will [Johnson] scored in the last minute, so I'm looking forward to getting back out there.”
That 95th minute-winner from Johnson in 2016 was a moment that will live long in the memory of TFC fans.
“It was a big goal: it wins us a trophy that for a long portion of that game looked like wasn't going to be ours,” said Michael Bradley. “And that was the early stages of really big run for us.”
Will Johnson's Game-Winning Goal - June 29, 2016
That Voyageurs Cup was the first significant piece of silverware for the club under Vanney. It led to the Eastern Conference crown and an MLS Cup Final that season and a treble of Canadian Championship, Supporters' Shield, and MLS Cup, the following one.
“We all understand what momentum can mean, going both ways,” added Bradley. “That momentum that we're starting to build over the last few weeks, we want to carry that on.”
For Hamilton, that 2016 final was particularly special.
“That was my first final on the field,” recalled Hamilton. “It was surreal. To have it go down the way it did, at the last minute. I was shocked in the moment. Looking back it was a really positive experience.”
And though Bradley does not see the rivalry between the clubs as being on par with the one Toronto has against the Montreal Impact, he did allow that, “There have been some good games, big moments in games with Vancouver.”
For the TFC captain, rivalries evolve from what happens on the field, “in a natural, organic way,” and with Whitecaps FC in the Western Conference, the two do not cross paths very often.
No doubt Vancouver feels more than a little aggrieved by how that 2016 final ended. Just as they did back in 2009 when they were forced to watch TFC lift the cup for the first time having shredded the Impact in the Miracle in Montreal.
Wednesday will offer the chance for another factor to be added to that equation.
Regardless of where one stands in that debate, one fact about this series is undisputed.
“It's [about] bragging rights in Canada,” said Hamilton. “Growing [up] in the academy and the youth national teams, it was always which team is better: TFC is better, Vancouver is better; it would always go back and forth.”
“[That] carried through to the professional level for me,” added Hamilton, who is eager to lift a third-straight cup. “You want to win as many trophies as you can in your career, this gives us a good opportunity to add to our cabinet.”
And the Voyageurs Cup is not all that is at stake, as to the winner goes a spot in the Concacaf Champions League as well. A competition that TFC very much wants to feature in again after this year's epic run to the final.
“It's massive,” said Fraser of that possibility. “That's definitely on everybody's mind. We'll take it one game at a time. That's how we'll do it for the rest of the season; nobody is looking too far ahead. That's the right mentality.”