Plenty at stake for Toronto FC, Whitecaps
Their reasons may be quite different, but both the Vanocuver Whitecaps and Toronto FC will be desperate for a title when they meet in the final of the Amway Canadian Championship.
For the Whitecaps, a win would mark another milestone in the team's development after three disappointing years of trying to grab national glory.
For three-time defending champion Toronto, another title represents a chance to salvage a troubled Major League Soccer season.
"The winner lifts a trophy and the loser gets forgotten," said Whitecaps midfielder John Thorrington after a practice at B.C. Place Stadium on Tuesday. "So we definitely don't want to come up on the losing ends over these next two weeks."
The two-game, total-goals series starts Wednesday in Vancouver. The winner will advance to North American, Central American and Caribbean zone (CONCACAF) Champions League as part of the qualification process for the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup.
The Whitecaps qualified for the Canadian final with a 5-1 aggregate win over lower-tier FC Edmonton in the semifinal. Vancouver is a respectable 5-3-2 in MLS play after finishing last overall in its 2011 expansion season.
Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie, who took over the club this season after Vancouver went through two other coaches in 2011, said a Canadian crown is important to the growth of his organization.
While every game means a lot as the Whitecaps try to turn their fortunes around from a year ago, a cup final takes on more importance.
"Nothing builds a winning culture like winning a trophy," Rennie said. "We did that in the pre-season [with an exhibition tournament final victory over Toronto]. We've got to keep finding that winning feeling and make people get addicted to it and want it more."
On the other hand, Toronto squeaked into the final with its first win of the season, a 2-0 decision over Montreal in last week's second leg of their semifinal. The win followed a scoreless draw in the first leg at Montreal.
The victory, which came after defender Richard Eckersley took a direct red card forcing Toronto play a man down, came after eight straight losses in league play.
"We needed a victory and the victory against Montreal was very important," said Toronto coach Aron Winter. "Also the way we reached it. After 15 minutes you get a red card, then you have to continue 75 minutes with a man less. Even then we dominated. We played good football and scored the second goal [after the first came in the second minute].
"It's one of the things we needed as a team. This weekend we did not have a [MLS] game, so we prepared ourselves for Vancouver."
The preparations included Jim Brennan, Toronto FC's first player and captain, replacing Bob de Klerk as assistant coach after de Klerk was promoted to technical manager. In addition, Paul Mariner, TFC's director of player development saw his role expanded to include the occasional tutoring of strikers.
Still, Rennie has painted the Reds as heavy favourites over most of the past week. He changed his stance slightly Tuesday, contending that Toronto should be favoured on the basis of its six-year MLS history and three Canadian titles, but adding that the Whitecaps have a strong chance to win.
Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit said observers might peg the Reds as the favourites based on their Canadian championship record, but take a different view based on current MLS standings.
In last year's final, Vancouver was leading TFC on aggregate in the second leg on a goal by star striker Eric Hassli. However, rain and lightning struck suddenly and, in accordance with the competition's rules, the game was abandoned and ordered replayed. The Whitecaps subsequently went through a coaching change and came up short during the replay.
Hassli has rediscovered his form recently, scoring three goal in four games after a 17-game scoreless drought over two seasons. He said the Canadian title still holds considerable meaning for him and the rest of a Vancouver squad that consists mainly of players from outside Canada.
"I was a champion when I played in Zurich and it was a great feeling," Hassli said. "I want to win this Canadian Cup."
Rennie has shuffled his lineup liberally during the two Canadian semifinal games and two league matches.
He was coy when asked if more regulars would play against Toronto, but he is expected to go with his usual starting back line after DeMerit was left home from a league loss at struggling New England last weekend.
Toronto's defence crew will be minus Eckersley, who is suspended for one game after his red card.
Meanwhile, Reds captain Torsten Frings stayed home to nurse a sore shoulder after he received three injections in it to enable him to suit up in the second leg against Montreal. But Dutch forward Danny Koevermans will play after missing five games since tweaking his groin in training after an April 14 loss to Chivas USA.
Koevermans is looking to provide more output after scoring just one goal in five games (three starts) this season.
"It's all about the team," he said. "If I can't score in the next three weeks and we win, I'm fine with that. But of course as a striker it's important to get a goal and I've been close in the first five games. it could have easily been four or five goals."
Reds defender Miguel Aceval (hamstring) also did not travel to Vancouver because of injury.
In another one of the many story angles giving Canadian soccer some rare hype, Toronto midfielder Terry Dunfield, a Vancouver native and former Whitecap, hopes to have a happy homecoming. Vancouver traded him to the Reds midway through last season.
"I'm excited," he said. "It's the first time I've been back [to Vancouver] since the trade. So I'm looking forward to playing in the [newly-renovated] stadium there against some of my ex-teammates."