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Voyageurs Cup: Time for Expansion?

Last Wednesday, 22,000 fans gathered in Toronto to watch the semi-final clash between Toronto FC and l’Impact de Montréal. Meanwhile in Ottawa, more than 9,000 fans gathered to watch Ottawa Fury FC take on – and defeat – the Vancouver Whitecaps. This week, both Montréal and Vancouver are expecting large crowds. Is it not time to expand this tournament to more than five teams?

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It was great watching nearly 22,000 people show up to a Wednesday night soccer game for our national cup. I firmly believe that some of Canada's best soccer moments have come in the Amway Canadian Championship (or its previous derivatives). Montréal's 6-0 annihilation of Toronto in 2013, along with Ottawa's 2-0 upset of Vancouver last Wednesday are great moments in Canadian club soccer. This is, after all, "our" tournament. It is the money and dedication of Canadian Soccer supporters, les voyageurs, that founded and paid for this trophy. That so many people got to see it in a national broadcast is positively delightful, and great for the development of the sport nationally.

However, we have only five professional clubs, and many cities are not exposed to the tournament that they paid for. To compound this frustrating fact, the NASL cannot expand further into Canada due to constraints imposed on leagues by the USSF with regards to the amount of foreign participation that can be allowed in a US-based league. The MLS/USL partnership has no expansion plans in Canada in the future either. This means that roughly half of all Canadians are not in regions served by a professional soccer franchise, and cannot partake in the tournament that they paid for and founded.Therefore, we should expand the tournament.

I do not think that Canada is in a similar situation to the United States, where we could support an "Open Cup", where any amateur or semi-professional team could enter and compete. That may dilute the quality and content to a level that makes the contest unappealing to many spectators. That being said, there are several development leagues in Canada that could contribute teams in areas where there is a large interest in soccer. These leagues, like the Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ) and the Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL) all have teams that play at a level competitive enough to build the game, or at least attract a sizable crowd, in markets not served by the five Canadian professional clubs.

For example, in the PLSQ both Dynamo de Québec and FC Gatineau are in areas with a population that can support professional soccer, and play in stadiums that can accommodate several thousand spectators. Excluding these teams is a wasted opportunity to grow both the popularity and visibility of the tournament and the Voyageurs Cup. Their exclusion also limits the exposure of fans to professional calibre soccer, and their players to elite calibre opposition.

Most of these teams, at least in the PLSQ, would be able to compete. Many PLSQ teams feature experienced veterans like Sita-Taty Matondo, Ali Gerba, Phillipe Davies and Abraham François, all veterans of the Canadian National Team program.

Now, I am not suggesting that FC Gatineau immediately start at the same level of tournament play as l'Impact de Montréal. Indeed, the tournament is already structured in such a fashion that the MLS teams only enter once one of the NASL sides has eliminated the other. This rounds the number of entrants to four. Logically, if we were to accept clubs from lower tiers of the soccer pyramid they would begin play in their own round as well, or in some form of play-off elimination. This would avoid an unnecessary humiliation by an MLS franchise, while still allowing small clubs to  participate in the tournament, with a ticket to play an NASL team in the second round as the reward.

Thankfully, the Fédération de soccer du Québec (FSQ) has already commented on record that they are close to a deal with their federal counterparts that would see a team from the PLSQ compete for the Voyageurs Cup in coming seasons.

Certainly, there will be detractors and opponents. But fans of MLS teams, and Montréalais in particular, are in no position to complain. It was the second division Impact that eliminated Toronto FC in the 2008 Voyageurs Cup to book a place in the CONCACAF Champions League. If anyone here remembers, that second division Impact team defeated Liga MX giants Santos Laguna as well, in front of more than 55,000 fans. Who are we to deny the same opportunities to FC Gatineau or Dynamo de Québec?

Lastly, this is a great way to build professional soccer in non-traditional markets. This tournament is an event, and events draw crowds. Many of the cities with teams in the PLSQ, notably Gatineau, Longueuil and Québec are all urban centres with a population that could support professional sports. There is no reason to suggest that a prospective game against an NASL team wouldn't draw several thousand spectators. Against an MLS club - especially in a city with a rivalry with Montréal - perhaps they could draw more. That is growth that is good not only for the game itself, but for the clubs involved. For the professional clubs involved, it means exposure to new fan markets, and an opportunity for sales of tickets and merchandise at an event that might not come to that city again for a while.

Ultimately, the point of soccer, whether watching or playing, is to have fun. The more people having fun, the better the tournament will be, and more money it will make. 9,000 people showed up in Ottawa last Wednesday, and that franchise is only three years old. There is no reason why some of our larger cities could not muster similarly sized crowds. They should at least be given the chance to try. After all, the more the merrier.