Pacific FC looks to build on its giant-killing start to the Canadian Championship. York United FC and HFX Wanderers FC hope to join Pacific in upsetting Major League Soccer opposition.
The three Canadian Premier League teams are in action Wednesday, looking to join defending CPL champion Forge FC in the tournament semifinals.
For CPL sides, the Canadian tournament is a rare chance to lay down a marker against their MLS big brothers.
"Hopefully all the people that were here can see that we’re building something on this (Vancouver) Island," Pacific FC head coach Pa-Modou Kah said after knocking off the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-3 in preliminary-round play last week.
York United plays at Toronto FC while HFX Wanderers entertain CF Montreal. Pacific plays at Cavalry FC in the other quarterfinal Wednesday.
Forge, third in the CPL at 9-7-1, advanced to the final four by downing Winnipeg's Valour FC 2-1 last week.
HFX coach Stephen Hart, whose team is sixth in the CPL at 5-6-7, says he wishes he could play against a Montreal side that sits in fifth place in the MLS Eastern Conference at 10-8-7, just one point out of third.
"I think it's arguably the biggest night for the club, in the sense that is David and Goliath, an MLS team, a team that is showing really good quality this season … It's not a team that is struggling. So it's a big night for us," Hart said. "And I think it's the type of game that I want the players to go out and enjoy because we don't get to play these sort of cup games often."
York United head coach Jim Brennan, whose team is fourth in the CPL at 6-5-8, is no stranger to TFC. He was the MLS team's first-ever signing and captain, served as its assistant coach and assistant GM and is on the team's Wall of Honour at BMO Field.
He calls Toronto, a seven-time winner of the Voyageurs Cup that goes to the Canadian Championship victor, as "a monster club, probably the biggest club in the country" with a "huge budget."
CPL teams are each allowed to spend between $650,000 and $850,000 on their playing roster.
Toronto has at least six players — Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Omar Gonzalez, Chris Mavinga, Jonathan Osorio and Alejandro Pozuelo (not to mention plus Yeferson Soteldo, whose salary has not been released by the MLS Players Association because of his arrival time this season) — who individually make more than that CPL player budget.
Montreal has five — Rudy Camacho, Bjorn Johnsen, Romell Quioto, Kiki Struna and Victor Wanyama.
Forge will play either Montreal or HFX in the semifinal while the Toronto-York winner will face either Cavalry (9-4-5, second in the CPL) or Pacific (10-3-6, first).
Toronto will be without some of its star quality with Altidore and Pozuelo, two of its three designated players, joining Ayo Akinola, Ralph Priso and Tsubasa Endoh on the inured list.
Toronto coach Javier Perez expects to faced a very motivated York side.
"If we match the level of effort and energy, it will be a good matchup. If we don't match that level of intensity, it will be a difficult matchup for us," said the Spaniard. "On paper, we have the stronger team. But then we have to show that on the field. And we need to perform at the highest level if we want to win the game and go through."
"It sounds like a cliche but it's 11 against 11 and any team can beat any team," Perez added.
Languishing in the MLS basement at 4-15-6, Toronto has targeted the Canadian tournament, wanting something to celebrate in what has been a nightmarish season,
Montreal won the last Canadian Championship contested, defeating Toronto in a penalty shootout in 2019 after the two-legged final finished knotted at 1-1.
The pandemic eventually shelved the 2020 edition of the tournament. Canada Soccer announced that Forge, as CPL champ, would play Toronto FC, which won an all-Canadian round-robin as part of the disrupted 2020 MLS season, in the final in the first quarter of 2021.
With Forge unable to train due to local health restrictions, that matchup was eventually postponed in March and Canada Soccer ruled that Toronto would serve as Canada’s representative in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. TFC won its round-of-16 tie against Club Leon but was eliminated in the quarterfinal in May by Cruz Azul, another Mexican side.
The Forge-Toronto match remains on the books, with only a trophy and bragging rights on the line, but a date has yet to be set for the Tim Hortons Field meeting.
Toronto and Montreal received byes to the quarterfinals this year.
In other preliminary-round play, Cavalry FC downed FC Edmonton 2-0, York blanked League 1 Ontario's Master's FA 5-0, HFX Wanderers beat Quebec's AS Blainville 2-1 and Valour FC defeated Atletico Ottawa 3-2.
Toronto has never faced a CPL side although it played FC Edmonton when it was part of the NASL. It also faced the now-defunct Ottawa Fury, then of the USL, in Canadian Championship play.
According to the MLS collective bargaining agreement, the Canadian Championship overall winner earns US$75,000 in prize money.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press