It happened a bit later in the schedule than normal but it is finally here. The Amway Canadian Championship returns to the forefront of the country's soccer scene, and a ticket to the 2016-2017 CONCACAF Champions League will be punched.
The Montreal Impact, three time winners and holders of the Voyageurs Cup from the past two editions, will host the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday night at 7:30 pm under the lights of Stade Saputo. The Whitecaps return to the final, having never lifted the trophy despite their five consecutive runners up finishes between 2009-2013.
Now contested between five teams (3 in MLS, 2 in NASL), the Amway Canadian Championship was founded in 2008. It was originally contested only between Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver but now includes the likes of F.C. Edmonton (2011) and the Ottawa Fury F.C. (2014). Upon the entrance of a fourth team, the tournament transitioned from a home and away round robin format to two aggregate legs. Along with the Voyageurs Cup, the victors receive a berth in Champions League, something that was obviously an integral but sometimes forgotten part of the Impact's run to the CCL final a few months ago.
The Canadian Championship has undergone a bit of a makeover this summer. Normally contested in the spring months, the Canadian Soccer Association has moved it to a summer schedule. Therefore, the winner will be crowned too late for admission to the current CCL which kicked off just over a week ago. The CSA explained that the possibility of expansion as well as creating a more fan-friendly tournament were behind the decision.
In order to fill in the void made by the tournament's transition this year, it was agreed that the highest Canadian team in the MLS table at the end of last season would earn the right to play in the 2015-2016 CCL. It was Vancouver and they kicked off their Champions League campaign with a 1-1 draw versus Seattle on August 5th. A 2015 Voyageurs Cup will see them repeat as Canadian representatives in the continental tournament.
Both Montreal and Vancouver endured tense semifinal affairs in the build up to Wednesday's final. The Impact barely escaped their trip down the 401 and to BMO field despite previously winning 1-0 at home. Sebastian Giovinco's goal for Toronto seemed to put the matter to rest at 3-1 (3-2), but Dominic Oduro's tenacity around goal proved to be the difference maker as he headed home the aggregate winner against his old club and Montreal advanced on away goals.
Vancouver met Edmonton F.C. in the other matchup. The two sides drew 1-1 at B.C. Place in the opening fixture. In the return leg at Edmonton, Tomi Ameobi, who is the lead scorer in tournament history, successfully converted his stoppage time and game-tying penalty for the home side. Seemingly destined for extra time, the Whitecaps' Matias Laba had other plans. The Argentine netted the winner seven minutes past the ninety to give Vancouver another shot at the elusive cup.
Both teams and supporters will remember the 2013 edition of the tournament. The Whitecaps and Impact similarly met in the final two years ago, with the first leg also occurring in Montreal. After a 0-0 result in the opening leg, Hassoun Camara's header in the 84' minute cancelled out Diago Kobayashi's strike fifteen minutes earlier to level the score at 2-2 with a positive away goal advantage for the Impact. Camara's goal was the winner and then-Whitecaps player Nigel Reo-Coker and his Western Canadian club had to settle for second. It was Montreal's second straight title.
The Impact will be without Jack McInerney after the American forward was dealt in a trade one week ago. He ranks second all time in tournament goals with four, and won the golden boot last year. However, the Montreal club should see the return of Justin Mapp from an elbow injury suffered at the beginning of the MLS season. Mapp was the recipient of the past two George Gross Memorial Trophy awards. The award is given to the most valuable player of the Canadian Championship.
The return leg will be held August 26 at 10:30 pm within B.C. Place. Montreal will again try to find a formidable away game performance, something they have gained a reputation for, when the teams head out west. In the 2014-2015 CCL knockout stage, the Impact notched five goals in three away games and were never shut out.
On the other hand, Vancouver, who sit atop of the league table in the Western Conference, will try to use their stifling defense to finally capture their first Canadian title. The Whitecaps have only conceded 22 goals, tying them for best in the league in that category. If that same defense can stop Montreal's knack for away goals, a new name may be engraved on the cup. Part 1 of 2 is tomorrow.