TORONTO – It's that time of year again.
Every season around this time, the Canadian teams meet up to contest for the right to lift the Voyageurs Cup and be named Canadian Champions, earning a spot in the Concacaf Champions League.
For Toronto FC, two-time defending champions and six-time winners, the path back to the international stage begins on July 18 when they travel to the nation's capital for the away leg of their semifinal series against Ottawa Fury FC.
The domestic cup is unique. Separate from league play, teams vie to be named champions of their nation. Every country has one, some two; each is special.
“It's big,” said Jay Chapman. “Any time you play against the other Canadian players, Canadian teams, there's a rivalry there. It's a good opportunity to not only get minutes, but to show ourselves in front of the Canadian fans. It's an exciting tournament.”
For young players in particular, the Canadian Championship can be a chance to prove themselves.
“It means a lot to me,” explained Jordan Hamilton. “I got my breakthrough in the Canadian Championship, it's a platform for Canadian players. You get your chances, it's up to [you] to take them.”
Hamilton did just that in 2016.
“My first start was in the Canadian Championship,” recalled Hamilton. “I scored two goals. That's a moment that will stick with me: a 19-year-old kid, playing against [Didier] Drogba, on the big stage at BMO Field where I went to games growing up; scoring with my whole family in the crowd. A surreal moment that I'll never forget.”
And without fail, every year the Voyageurs Cup provides a moment of magic or two.
Liam Fraser's favourite was last season's dramatic conclusion in Toronto, when TFC defeated the Montreal Impact with the last kick of the game.
“Raheem [Edwards] cutting back to Sebastian [Giovinco], winning it in the 90-plus minute was massive,” said Liam Fraser. “I was fortunate enough to be at that game, feel the crowd; the atmosphere. Hopefully I get to experience some of that myself. I'm looking forward to it.”
Chapman, concurred, adding in the epic last-minute winner in 2016 against Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
“Any time we're able to win it,” smiled Chapman of his cherished Canadian Championship memories. “The one where Will Johnson scored in Vancouver, messed up his leg, was a good one too.”
The origins of the trophy date back to 2002 when the supporters of the Canadian National Team, The Voyageurs, took the initiative of creating the cup and awarding it to the Canadian side who fared the best against their domestic opponents within USL A-League/First Division play.
Come 2008 the competition took on a new dimension, as the then-three professional clubs – Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps FC – met on the field to determine a champion in a round robin format.
By 2011 the format switched to a series of two-legged knockout rounds with the addition of FC Edmonton expanding the playing field to four sides. When Ottawa Fury FC came onto the scene in 2014 a preliminary round was added between the two lower level sides to see who would earn the right to join the MLS clubs at the main table.
And this year the preliminary stage was split into two rounds: the first saw League1 Ontario champions, the Oakville Blue Devils square off against champions of the Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ), AS Blainville, adding even more to what was already a special competition.
Blainville defeated Oakville 3-1 on aggregate to move on to face Ottawa in the second qualifying round.
“It's good for the growth of the tournament,” said Ashtone Morgan of the expansion. “I have some old teammates on those teams. It was great to see them, joke with them, 'Maybe you make it far enough to come play the big boys.' I'm happy it keeps growing and getting bigger, hopefully we get more and more teams as the years go by.”
As cup holders, TFC will meet Ottawa, who advanced past Blainville (2-0 on aggregate) in one semifinal, while Montreal and Vancouver square off in the other. The second legs go a week later on July 25 and the two legs of the final are set for August 8 and August 15, respectively.
Having dispatched the Fury at the same stage last season, Toronto have an idea of what lies ahead.
“They're going to play with a point to prove,” said Hamilton. “Every [professional] wants to take the next step. They're going to be hungry, leave everything on the field, so we've got to be ready for that; match their intensity.”
Ottawa took the home leg 2-1 in 2017, only for Toronto to storm back and win the second 4-0 to advance to the final.
“Last year they gave us a tough time,” recalled Chapman. “They're a good USL team; well coached. Any time you play a team from a lower tier, they come out ready to battle and make a name for themselves.”
“It's not going to be an easy series, but we're ready for it,” added Chapman, noting the gravity of the prizes at stake. “We want to get back to the Concacaf Champions League, so we're going to put our all into those games.”
And lining up opposite will be some former Reds: Nana Attakora, Chris Mannella, and David Monsalve, as well as a host of compatriots with the national team. Julian de Guzman, himself a former TFC player, is Ottawa's general manager.
“It's always good to play against old teammates, friends, get that competitive edge going,” relished Morgan. “Ottawa are going to want to win, like we want to win. We're not going to treat them any different. It's just another game for us and we have a task at hand.”