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Canadian tourney offers MLS clubs hope

Aron Winter has come under pressure during Toronto FC's slow MLS campaign.
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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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As a relatively young five-year-old tournament, the Amway Canadian Championship doesn’t carry the kind of historical significance of national club tournaments like the FA Cup in England, or even the US Open Cup in the United States. Yet, the rapid expansion of MLS into Canada has helped turn the event into an important and popular competition with more on the line than just a trophy.

The budding rivalries between clubs like Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps have helped give the Canadian Championship an extra dose of buzz. Added to the fact that a CONCACAF Champions League ticket goes is at stake carries even more weight after Toronto FC’s surprising run to the Champions League semifinals.

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The Canadian Championship doesn’t have much of a history compared to the 98-year-old US Open Cup, but it has already captured the interest of a nation in a way the Open Cup never has. Major credit for that goes to the arrivals of Montreal and Vancouver to MLS. Plus, the tournament’s format is a simple one featuring just four teams rather than a drawn-out event taking place over months, and featuring teams from every level of American soccer.

Toronto FC enters the competition as title holders and enters as the team needing to win the competition. Their awful 0-7 start to the current MLS campaign, has managed to erase all the momentum the team picked up from its surprising Champions League run. Now, TFC head coach, Aron Winter, faces the prospect of having his job on the line heading into a tournament that he led the team to victory in last year.

Toronto FC has dominated the competition since its inception, having won the past three editions of the tournament. This year’s field is easily the toughest in its brief history, and TFC will face a stiff semifinal series challenge from the Montreal Impact.

Impact head coach, Jesse Marsch, has compiled a veteran squad that has shown considerable improvement in the past month after a shaky start to their inaugural MLS season. Montreal takes on Toronto on Wednesday in the tournament opener, riding high off a 2-0 victory against the Portland Timbers. Montreal has already beaten TFC during this MLS season. Eliminating TFC from the Canadian Championship though, would send a clear message that the Impact are definitely serious about overtaking Toronto in the Canadian soccer pecking order.

Toronto FC enters the competition in disarray. A combination of key injuries and atrocious defending, have doomed the club to the worst start in MLS history. Toronto showed in the Champions League that they can step their game up and play much better than they have shown at times in MLS play, but their defense has gotten progressively worse. Growing pressure to snap the team’s recent losing streak will only make things tough for the Canadian club.

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With the current MLS season already slipping away, Winter and TFC face more pressure to win this tournament than ever before. Winning the tournament this time around will be as much about giving the club some desperately-needed hope in a nightmare year as it will be about lifting silverware. Anything less than a fourth straight title will likely mean the end of Winter’s tenure at Toronto FC.

Vancouver comes into the competition as the favorites, having enjoyed a dream start to their second season in Major League Soccer. The Whitecaps boast a stingy defense that set a record for longest shutout streak to start an MLS season, and an offense that hasn’t quite produced as many goals as expected. Fortunately for Vancouver, they should enjoy success against NASL side FC Edmonton in the semifinals.

FC Edmonton is the forgotten participant in the Canadian Championship, and their terrible results to start the new NASL campaign suggest they will be confined to the role of punching bag. The team is a good bet to go winless for a second straight year in the tournament, but there should be some eyes on goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz, the same netminder who delivered a memorable performance in shutting out the United States in the recent CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Aside from the usual bragging rights for the team that wins the first tournament featuring three MLS teams, The Canadian Championship winner will also have direct entry into the CONCACAF Champions League. Young clubs like Vancouver and Montreal will look to build their fan bases and try to establish themselves as regional powers.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.

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