TORONTO – The quest for the Voyageurs Cup begins on Wednesday.
As defending champions, Toronto FC enter the competition at the semi-final stage where they will play a two-legged series against USL Championship side Ottawa Fury FC. The first leg will be played at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa before the return at BMO Field next week.
This year's expanded edition of the Canadian Championship saw the inclusion of the seven Canadian Premier League sides, as well as the provincial champions from League1 Ontario and the Premiere Ligue de soccer du Quebec.
Through the three qualifying rounds, there have been plenty of twists and turns: Cavalry FC knocked off Vancouver Whitecaps FC, while York9 FC gave the Montreal Impact a run for their money – Cavalry and Montreal will meet in the other semi-final. And Ottawa were pushed hard by HFX Wanderers FC in their series, taking it 5-4 on aggregate.
That's always the risk in a cup competition where teams from various levels duel.
“When you play teams that are in the lower divisions this is their World Cup Final, this is their Super Bowl,” said TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono. “We have to be prepared for their early energy and intensity, make sure we match that because it's very easy to come out flat in these games.”
“Focused and ready from the first whistle,” stressed Bono. “If you start slow, it makes that 90 minutes really slow – on the road, on turf with a team that all they want to do is beat an MLS team.”
The two sides have met at the same stage in the last two competitions with TFC advancing from each, though the Fury did take the first-ever meeting back in 2017 by a 2-1 scoreline.
“They have nothing to lose, the motivation level can be extremely high,” explained Greg Vanney. “It's a mentality game: if you go thinking that it is anything less than the most important thing in front of you then you're going to be in trouble.”
“Whoever we put on the field has to take the game with that kind of seriousness. We've got to match the mentality and then be better on the soccer side of things,” he continued. “They're an organized team, not easy to play against, and they've got some weapons on the field that in the right moments can hurt you too. We've got to be very diligent.”
With the two legs nestled between three league matches, Vanney has been weighing his options for team selection.
“That's been my off-hours for the last week or so and my entire night [Sunday],” said the coach. “Trying to put all those pieces together.”
“We want to get some guys going, introducing some young guys, guys who are coming back from injury, some guys we've just added. There are a lot of dynamics,” considered Vanney. “It's two legs. Two years ago we went and lost, last year we got ourselves set up to come home and finish it.”
Jonathan Osorio scored the away goal in a 1-0 win in 2018's first leg.
“We want to go and get the best result possible, putting less emphasis, if you can, on the second game,” he reasoned. “We need to take this game with the utmost intensity to get on top of it.”
One certainty, as revealed last week by Vanney, is that Bono will make his return between the posts, his first action since May 8 away to Atlanta United FC.
“Like every player, frustrated, disappointed, but he's worked hard, worked on the things we've talked about, he's sharp in training,” said Vanney. “Yes, he will start in those games and we'll ride him to the championship. We have a lot of trust in him, faith in him.”
Bono admitted it has indeed been frustrating.
“Of course,” said the 25-year-old. “It's a difficult situation that I've had to figure out how to adapt to for the first time in my career. It's been a new experience, [one] where I've learned a lot about how things go and a lot about myself.”
His mindset throughout has been: “Just focus on yourself.”
“Make sure that you're best prepared for whatever comes at you. Whatever your role may be you have to be prepared to best help the team,” explained Bono. “I don't mean: to be selfish. I mean: I have a role each and every day with this team, whether it be playing the game, sitting on the bench, taking the reps in training. The difficult part is that sometimes you have to swallow your pride and take on the role that has been given to you.”
When it was suggested that he would be starting on Wednesday, Bono smiled: “I feel great. Talking to a few people, I've mentioned I feel like I've been training as well as I ever have.”
“The feedback from people who have seen it is they tend to agree,” he continued. “I am at my best, I am where I need to be. For me it's just staying prepared and staying ready to step back in, be myself, and play my game.”
To the winner goes not only the spoils of the cup itself, but a spot in the Concacaf Champions League.
“This is the one and only way for us to get in,” reminded Vanney. “Our only path. It's four games: take no game for granted. [The] guys get it.”
Said Bono: “We know it's important.”
“You've seen so far in the tournament the CPL teams have pulled off some upsets. It's a reminder as we enter that there is no taking this for granted,” continued Bono. “We have four games to make sure we play in Champions League next year again. That's the goal. Anything less than a Canadian Championship is a failure for us.”
“We know how important Champions League is, how much exposure the competition gets, how exciting it is and the environments that you play in, how much that adds to yourself as a player and as a team, being a part of that environment. This is where it starts,” he added. “There are four teams left. We've got to be the last one standing.”