ACC: Soccer in the Great White North

While Toronto struggles, Vancouver and Montreal succeed and Edmonton and Ottawa build for the future
by Daniel Casey   |   Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Amway Canadian Championship (aka: ACC or Voyageurs Cup)

In North America May is the beginning of Cup season with both the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and the Amway Canadian Championship – or the Voyageurs Cup as the locals call it – getting underway. On May 15th the US Open Cup will begin play for the 99th time. Meanwhile, the Voyageurs Cup has only been around since 2002 and only began to be awarded as the Canadian Championship in 2008.

However, this is largely due to the fact that it has only been in the last decade that soccer has gained a real foothold in North America. Canada’s top tier teams in MLS and NASL compete for the ACC: Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, and FC Edmonton. Although a small group, it is growing. Come the 2013-2014 season the Ottawa Fury will join the NASL and thus have a chance at competing for the Canadian Championship and a place in the qualifying rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League.

In Canada, we get to see the steady growth of the sport we love as it slowly and deliberately expands its reach and deepens its quality. Ottawa will take some major steps in the next couple of years as it builds a new downtown stadium and preps for the jump from fourth tier soccer to second tier. And this should be a shining example for the lower league teams in Canada and for the still developing Canadian Soccer League (an exclusively Canadian league that operates as the nation’s third tier league).

Last week, while MLS featured a midweek match between DC United and San Jose that saw a total of eight goals scored, the ACC quietly got underway. Quietly because the first match of the tournament between Montreal and Toronto was the complete opposite of the midweek MLS match, Toronto struggled and Montreal failed to capitalize ending in a goalless draw.

Although they are the biggest fish in the Canadian pond, Toronto is a desperate team. Aron Winter has little time left as TFC’s manager. Given the team’s display in the first leg of the Championship and then the woeful loss over the weekend to DC United, Winter’s tenure is on life-support. Toronto are now winless over their last eleven matches in all competitions, out scored during that time 25-9, shutout five times, and still pointless in MLS play. Pointless. TFC supporters are feeling that word like an existential weight. It is not just a statistic; it expresses the mood of the club. On the pitch, Aron Winter seems to have no real direction to give his players other than “be better.”

Such managerial finesse has wrought the appropriate success displayed in the first leg of against Montreal. Toronto didn’t play conservatively; it would be too kind to call it that, rather they played like a team afraid to lose. They were desperate and apprehensive. There was no Toronto attack.

In fact, at one point early in the second half, Toronto seemingly decided to deploy the always crowd pleasing 4-6-0 formation. Looking at the stat sheet at the end of the night, there would be one Toronto shot on target, that is, one shot…and by a substitute. Donovan Ricketts could have sat in a deckchair all night. It wouldn’t even be so out of bounds to say he could have stayed in the tunnel. It is doubtful Toronto will emerge from its downward spiral in the ACC; if they do not advance this Wednesday at home in the second leg of their contest with Montreal, then they will have squandered their only chance to resuscitate a dying season and underachieving franchise. TFC supporters deserve better.

And better was what they got in the first leg of the Vancouver-FC Edmonton contest. Whereas Montreal had fielded their standard side to face a moping Toronto, Vancouver gave several of their defensive stalwarts the game off (Jay Demerit, Martin Bonjour, Lee Young-Pyo, and Joe Cannon). What this revealed was a Vancouver side that is deeper than suspected, one that within their depth have players who know their place in the system quite well. Carlyle Mitchell, Greg Klazura and number two ‘keeper Brad Knighton all filled in admirably as the regular defensive cohort was rested.

The Whitecaps have a plethora of young attacking talent as well that is itching to break into the starting lineup. Omar Salgado has been adapting to the left winger role quite well recently. Although he is still probably not ready to hold down the side regularly in MLS, he is may earn his place soon enough. Likewise, although Atiba Harris certainly has quality, he probably needs more seasoning at the right winger role. This “B-side” won decisively 2-0, collecting the all important away goals. Vancouver played this Cup tie like a proper early stage Cup tie – they rested key players, gave eager young talent the showcase, peppered in some regulars, and played like a side that expects to win the tournament.

And if you thought Edmonton were somehow a vastly inferior side because they’re from the second tier NASL, take a look at the stats for the two matches. What you’ll see is a NASL team that played significantly better than Toronto and nearly on par with Montreal. Certainly, the Eddies – just by virtue of being the only non-first division side in the ACC – are the underdogs. But they are looking less and less like pushovers with every match played.

It should also be noted that the Eddies have decided to put together the most Canadian of Canadian teams. Unlike Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, FC Edmonton has made a commitment to developing their local and national talent. This commitment to domestic talent is something that Ottawa is keeping tabs on; the team has said that they are hoping to emulate Edmonton once they come into the NASL. Combined the three MLS teams have 14 Canadian players, the Eddies have 17. Edmonton should be commended for this because Cup ties are perhaps the ways to develop talent—it throws young players into a hard, professional mix that although challenging isn’t overwhelming like regular higher league play. Doneil Henry of Toronto is an excellent example of a player who should feature regularly in Cup play (especially in the early stages) while being held out of league play. It’s another check against Aron Winter that Henry has been rushed into league play, because it could very well stifle the promising player’s growth. For the Eddies and for the Canadian national team, Kyle Porter and goalkeeper David Monsalve are future stars.

League results over the weekend look to make the second leg much more interesting. Montreal had an improbable road victory over Sporting Kansas City, one of the two best teams in MLS this season. This means going into Toronto, Montreal has genuine momentum while the home steam will be lashing out in desperation. Look for the battle at BMO Field to be a chippy affair, as Montreal is a physical team and Toronto has gotten to that stage where they can only hope to ruin other squad’s hopes.

We should expect Vancouver to progress with relative ease to the ACC final. Although to get there they will have to take FC Edmonton seriously. The Eddies bounced back this last weekend by thrashing the Carolina Railhawks 3-0 thanks to Shaun Saiko’s hat trick. They’ll look to build on that momentum and get back at the Whitecaps. Quite simply, the final for the Canadian Championship will most likely feature Vancouver and Montreal. As an expansion side, Montreal would certainly covert silverware in their first MLS season just as first-year Vancouver coach Martin Rennie would. The chance to be the Canadian Champions and be one step closer to playing in the CONCACAF Champions League is no small thing for these teams. It may not be the sexiest tournament, but for these four teams, this is their one chance at silverware and national bragging rights.

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.