The carrot for the winners of the Voyageurs Cup was a place in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League, not to mention considerable and year-long Canadian bragging rights. That honour is currently the property of the Impact, who proved their domestic triumph was no fluke by comfortably booking a passage into the knockout stages and suffering only a single defeat along the way.
Happily, the Canadian Soccer Association has confirmed the competition will be repeated in 2009 and, hopefully, in my opinion, for many years to come. Despite the vast distances which separate the cities, true and lasting rivalries are being established between these clubs and the fans they represent.
For their part, Toronto FC have been forced to watch and grudgingly admire Montreal's impact in an event featuring the region's best teams. And while the TFC fans will demand the record be put straight this year, there is a risk it could work against the common good.
TFC cannot afford to fail
To my mind, 2009 must be all about success in Major League Soccer – if necessary, to the exclusion of all else. Toronto FC simply cannot afford to fail again this year.
I'm sensing a mood change among fans and players alike - an impatience to move the product to the next level, where the MLS play-offs are the first, last and only priority. The playing staff has been improved again and soon it will be incumbent on those in red jerseys to deliver the performances and results their loyal supporters crave.
The philosophy of head coach John Carver is straightforward. For competitive games he will always select his strongest possible team and when fringe players are given an opportunity the jersey becomes theirs to lose. If, in Carver's opinion, they grab the chance they keep the shirt, if not it's back to the bench.
This year’s Canadian championship has been moved forward for all involved. It will be played over a six week period in May and June and, for Toronto FC, it will mean two games a week for three of their four matches. It will be a hectic schedule and there may be a price to pay.
No doubt Carver wants to win the competition and why wouldn't he after the embarrassment of losing it to a USL team in 2008? To achieve that goal, he'll have to use his best team. We now know both Montreal and Vancouver are more than capable of holding their own in the company of supposedly superior players from MLS.
Rich rewards from Champions League
As the Impact have so spectacularly demonstrated, there are rich rewards to be earned from a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. Could Toronto FC have filled the Rogers Centre the way Montreal packed Olympic Stadium on a cold night in February? Perhaps we'll see in twelve months time.
Despite that tempting distraction, Carver's overriding priority must be to lead his team to the MLS post-season and that will require a fast start to the campaign and a fully fit roster. The opening games against Vancouver and Montreal coincide with a crucial segment of the season – Toronto have five out of six home games – somewhat similar to 2008, when Carver's team was on a roll, winning matches and climbing the Eastern Conference standings.
That early season form needs to be repeated this year before the Gold Cup rolls around in July – a competition which will rob Carver of several key players, assuming it goes ahead as per FIFA's calendar.
More games mean more risk of injury and fatigue and while it is inevitably par for the course, the reduction in size of MLS rosters for 2009 and the abandonment of the reserve division this year gives Carver less room for manoeuvre in terms of team selection. One way or another, he is going to face some tough decisions in the coming months.
So Canadian smugness or league advancement, where do you draw the line? Perhaps you don't draw a line at all. Maybe you rely on one of the oldest clichés in the book and have both.
It's one game at a time. Always was. Always will be.
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