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Canadian championship sked announced

The Canadian Soccer Association and its three top professional clubs – Impact de Montréal, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC – announced the schedule Thursday for the 2010 Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

The three-team, six-match tournament runs six consecutive Wednesday nights from 28 April to 2 June. The 2010 winner will advance to represent Canada in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League season.

“The pride of Canada will be on the line during the 2010 Nutrilite Canadian Championship,” said Canadian Soccer Association President Dr. Dominique Maestracci. “Only the best will move forward to represent our nation in 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League and hopefully the FIFA Club World Cup 2011. It should be another thrilling championship between the Impact, Toronto FC and Whitecaps FC.”

“Soccer’s long been a favourite of Canadians recreationally and the professional game is certainly becoming an integral part of the Canadian sporting mosaic,” said Jim Hunking Managing Director, Canada/Caribbean, Amway Global. “The NUTRILITE Canadian Championship has played a part of elevating the profile of the professional game, and we’re proud to have been affiliated with this tournament since its inception. The future of professional soccer in Canada has never looked brighter and Amway Canada is committed to helping athletes at all levels realize their dreams by remaining a world leader in nutrition.”

This will mark the third season of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. This year, all six matches will be broadcast on Rogers Sportsnet, the official English broadcaster of the championship. Details on the championship’s French broadcast will be forth coming.

As 2009 champions, Toronto FC will host both the opening and closing matches of the competition. The 28 April match features Toronto FC against the Impact; the 2 June match features Toronto FC against Whitecaps FC. Both Toronto matches will be played at BMO Field.

In between, the four matches are Whitecaps FC vs. Impact on 5 May in Vancouver, Impact vs. Toronto FC on 12 May in Montréal, Whitecaps FC vs. Toronto FC on 19 May in Vancouver, and Impact vs. Whitecaps FC on 26 May in Montréal. Vancouver matches are played at Swangard Stadium while Montréal matches are played at Stade Saputo.

Since 2008, Canada’s top professional teams have played for the Voyageurs Cup in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. The Impact won the inaugural championship in 2008 while Toronto FC won the 2009 championship. In 2009, the three professional clubs played in front of an average capacity of 96% at Stade Saputo, BMO Field and Swangard Stadium. Tickets to the six 2010 Nutrilite Canadian Championship matches will be available via the respective home club ticketing agencies.

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NCC to Continue in 2010

Toronto FC will get the chance to defend its Nutrilite Canadian Championship crown in 2010, even if the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps have no leagues of their own in which to play.

The Canadian Soccer Association confirmed this week that the three-team championship still is slated to go ahead as it has the past two seasons, despite rumours to the contrary.

The CSA made the decision to sanction Montreal and Vancouver in December, meaning that they still can compete for a national championship.

Both Montreal and Vancouver are in limbo as the United States Soccer Federation refused to sanction the North American Soccer League, a new circuit formed by rebel owners from the United Soccer Leagues. The USL’s first division also was rejected. The leagues have until some time this week to strike an 11th-hour kiss-and-makeup deal that would satisfy the U.S. authorities.

With only two teams involved, the CSA already had stated that it would not take a stance on the situation between the leagues until its American counterpart had made its decision.

Montreal is bidding to join Major League Soccer, while Vancouver is set to join in 2011.

“As long as they (Montreal and Vancouver) are in good standing they are good to play in the tournament,” CSA spokesman Richard Scott said. “It’s a go.”

Vancouver, as the Whitecaps will play in MLS soon, should have some sort of team that can compete for the Canadian crown. But, Montreal, with no guarantees of MLS membership in the future, may not have a team to field if there is no league in place.

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Van trumps TO in MLS season ticket drive
March 23, 2009, 9:13 AM
Filed under: MLS Expansion, Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Major League Soccer is already a hit.Toronto FC was announced May 11, 2006. By Aug. 25 that year there were only 3,000 deposits. It took until the start of 2007 to reach 7,000.

MLS comes to B.C. Place Stadium in 2011.

When Vancouver was awarded the 17th franchise last Wednesday, the Vancouver Whitecaps announced 5,000 season ticket deposits at $50 each would go on sale Saturday morning. Before noon Sunday, 4,500 were purchased.

Vancouverites are showing why this is Canada’s soccer city.

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TFC players support MLS expansion in Canada
March 14, 2009, 9:23 AM
Filed under: MLS Expansion, Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Jim Brennan has seen the difference on Toronto soccer fields.

The jerseys of Juventus, AC Milan, Manchester United and other European clubs are still popular with kids playing the game. But these days so too are the colours of Toronto FC, the lone Canadian team among North America’s best, Major League Soccer.

“When you have a team that you support as a kid, and it’s local, you can dream of one day playing for that team and that’s something special,” Brennan, the Toronto native who is TFC’s captain, said as the team prepared for tonight’s championship game in the Carolina Challenge Cup.

“When I was a kid I never had that. That’s why I had to go over to Europe,” said Brennan, 31, who played in England for a decade before returning for TFC’s inaugural season in 2007. “If there was an opportunity, I’d have stayed in Toronto from day one.”

Now, as MLS looks to expand with the announcement of two more franchises for the 2011 season expected by month’s end, Canada is poised to add another team.

Vancouver is seen as the best bet among the four cities remaining in the bidding for a new franchise, which comes with a $40 million (U.S.) price tag – four times the amount Toronto paid. Ottawa, St. Louis and Portland are also looking to join the MLS, which is adding its 15th team in Seattle this season and another in Philadelphia for 2010.

Another Canadian team – or two – in the MLS would be a huge boost for soccer in the country, according to Brennan and other national team players on TFC. It would grow the popularity of the game by creating an instant rivalry with Toronto and give talented youngsters another option to stay at home and play in a top-flight pro league.

“There are plenty of reasons that it’s a positive for Canadian soccer,” said Greg Sutton, TFC’s goalkeeper who has played 11 games for Canada. “So, obviously the more teams the better, as long as it’s the right situation and good, sound, responsible franchises.”

More Canadian teams are also seen as a way to improve Canada’s flagging international soccer standing. Having more of the country’s best players stay in North America to play would make them more familiar with each other and cut down on exhausting overseas travel prior to key matches such as World Cup qualifying rounds.

“The more you can play in the same environment, the same style, the better you are when you come together as a (national) team and have to jell in two days,” said Dwayne De Rosario, who has 52 caps for Canada. “It would help us get into rhythm easier.”

Bob Lenarduzzi, chairman of the Vancouver Whitecaps – the city’s United Soccer League team – and a former national team player and coach, said it’s no coincidence that Canada’s best years internationally in the mid-1980s coincided with the last time there was a strong professional league in the country, the North American Soccer League.

“The more opportunities there are for players to play professionally in this country at the highest level, the better it is for the national team’s programs,” Lenarduzzi said.

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Canadian MLS Rival for TFC
March 4, 2009, 10:24 AM
Filed under: MLS Expansion, Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Vancouver and Portland will be granted MLS franchises later this month, according to a highly placed MLS source.

The failure of Miami to secure the backing of Barcelona has effectively ended the expansion race. Ottawa remains at play for 2013 and will go into that bidding process as the likely frontrunner if it approves a soccer specific stadium in April.
Although the source says that “all bets are off” for 2013 as several of the bids that pulled out for ’11 will be back in the hunt.

St. Louis still lacks significant financial backing to be a legitimate factor in the 2011 bid. Quietly the St. Louis bid has been negotiating with MLS to allow a structured deal similar to what Montreal and Miami asked for. It has been suggested that St. Louis was only prepared to pay about $9 million US in expansion fees, with the rest of its money tied up in infrastructure improvements required for MLS.

To this point MLS has not budged on the $40 million asking price and does not seem likely to do so with St. Louis either.

“St. Louis is banking on the league looking for a natural rival for Kansas City and nostalgia for what the city once was,” as second source said.

The decision to go to Portland and Vancouver was based on “stadium plan, political support and geographical factors,” the MLS source said.

MLS is waiting for Portland to give final approval on its stadium plan to make the announcement. That’s expected to come March 11. If Portland approves the stadium, the expansion announcement will likely take place March 17 or 18.

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Canadian pride versus MLS success
March 4, 2009, 8:20 AM
Filed under: Canada, MLS, Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, USL, Vancouver Whitecaps FC

It’s not the biggest or the newest soccer stadium in Canada. Far from it. But its setting must be among the most picturesque in the country.

Occupying the North West corner of Central Park, surrounded on three sides by imposing fir trees and offering striking views of the mountains of North Vancouver, the outlook from the broadcast booth at Swangard Stadium remains one of my abiding memories of the 2008 season.

It was a quick turn round on a warm summer’s evening in Burnaby, B.C., just long enough to cover the latest game in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship – the three-cornered contest between the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps to determine the national champions.

The carrot for the winners of the Voyageurs Cup was a place in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League, not to mention considerable and year-long Canadian bragging rights. That honour is currently the property of the Impact, who proved their domestic triumph was no fluke by comfortably booking a passage into the knockout stages and suffering only a single defeat along the way.

Happily, the Canadian Soccer Association has confirmed the competition will be repeated in 2009 and, hopefully, in my opinion, for many years to come. Despite the vast distances which separate the cities, true and lasting rivalries are being established between these clubs and the fans they represent.

For their part, Toronto FC have been forced to watch and grudgingly admire Montreal’s impact in an event featuring the region’s best teams. And while the TFC fans will demand the record be put straight this year, there is a risk it could work against the common good.

TFC cannot afford to fail

To my mind, 2009 must be all about success in Major League Soccer – if necessary, to the exclusion of all else. Toronto FC simply cannot afford to fail again this year.

I’m sensing a mood change among fans and players alike – an impatience to move the product to the next level, where the MLS play-offs are the first, last and only priority. The playing staff has been improved again and soon it will be incumbent on those in red jerseys to deliver the performances and results their loyal supporters crave.

The philosophy of head coach John Carver is straightforward. For competitive games he will always select his strongest possible team and when fringe players are given an opportunity the jersey becomes theirs to lose. If, in Carver’s opinion, they grab the chance they keep the shirt, if not it’s back to the bench.

This year’s Canadian championship has been moved forward for all involved. It will be played over a six week period in May and June and, for Toronto FC, it will mean two games a week for three of their four matches. It will be a hectic schedule and there may be a price to pay.

No doubt Carver wants to win the competition and why wouldn’t he after the embarrassment of losing it to a USL team in 2008? To achieve that goal, he’ll have to use his best team. We now know both Montreal and Vancouver are more than capable of holding their own in the company of supposedly superior players from MLS.

Rich rewards from Champions League

As the Impact have so spectacularly demonstrated, there are rich rewards to be earned from a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. Could Toronto FC have filled the Rogers Centre the way Montreal packed Olympic Stadium on a cold night in February? Perhaps we’ll see in twelve months time.

Despite that tempting distraction, Carver’s overriding priority must be to lead his team to the MLS post-season and that will require a fast start to the campaign and a fully fit roster. The opening games against Vancouver and Montreal coincide with a crucial segment of the season – Toronto have five out of six home games – somewhat similar to 2008, when Carver’s team was on a roll, winning matches and climbing the Eastern Conference standings.

That early season form needs to be repeated this year before the Gold Cup rolls around in July – a competition which will rob Carver of several key players, assuming it goes ahead as per FIFA’s calendar.

More games mean more risk of injury and fatigue and while it is inevitably par for the course, the reduction in size of MLS rosters for 2009 and the abandonment of the reserve division this year gives Carver less room for manoeuvre in terms of team selection. One way or another, he is going to face some tough decisions in the coming months.

So Canadian smugness or league advancement, where do you draw the line? Perhaps you don’t draw a line at all. Maybe you rely on one of the oldest clichés in the book and have both.

It’s one game at a time. Always was. Always will be.

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Soccer is taking over the nation
March 2, 2009, 8:11 AM
Filed under: Canada, MLS, Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, USL, Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Hey puckheads — Montreal Impact midfielder Sandro Grande has a message for you:

“This (Canada) is not a hockey nation. This is a soccer nation.”

What?

Questioning hockey’s status as the undisputed No. 1 in Canada is sacrilegious. Hockey always has been top dog.

Sure, Grande was coming off a high, after beating Mexico’s Santos Laguna in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League in front of over 55,000 jacked up fans at the Big ‘O’ in Montreal.

But there’s truth to it — Canada is a soccer nation, and maybe how important we’re told hockey is to Canadian culture isn’t reality.

Soccer culture is slowly but surely coming to the mainstream surface of Canadiana, with the Impact, Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Let’s be real, Grande Montreal is a hockey city — check that, a Montreal Canadiens city. Just like Toronto is a Maple Leafs town and Vancouver is all Canucks.

But the point here isn’t to suggest the pro soccer teams are more popular than the hockey clubs.

It’s about soccer culture. It’s about the interest, passion, knowledge and soccer lifestyle being just as prevalent in Canada as hockey.

MLS commissioner Don Garber acknowledged as much, seeing first-hand the reaction to Major League Soccer in Toronto. He has tried to make America a soccer nation for 13 years, but Canada was a soccer nation all along.

Canada’s foundation for being a soccer nation is obvious. Over 300,000 more Canadians play organized soccer than hockey.

Growth in hockey has been stagnant in recent years, partially because of the expense it costs to play it. As those costs continue to rise, hockey is going to become even more of an elitist sport.

Participation is only part of the story — our immigrant population base is another.

Thus far, Canada’s multicultural population hasn’t embraced the North American soccer game.

This isn’t surprising, with soccer being divided on cultural, ethnic and national lines. The same kind of nationalistic ties don’t exist in hockey, which speaks volumes, because Canadians define themselves by where they came from.

The immigrant population remains true to its old hometown club ties, preferring to watch soccer from where they, or their families came from.

This is one of the holes in assessing Canada’s passion for soccer through television ratings.

Hockey lives off its strong ratings, but it is an unfair indicator when comparing the sports. Hockey’s superior ratings have more to do with accessibility than anything else.

Watching soccer in North America takes serious commitment, with the majority of games overseas airing weekday afternoons or early in the morning. Only diehard fans will skip work or wake up at all hours to watch.

Hockey is easily accessible, to the point we have essentially been programmed to embrace it.

It’s like American politics; the public consumes the mindless derivative because it is being told it matters.

So Canadians get the same-old crap, redundant hockey conversation served up in a slightly different way all hours of the day. It’s quantity, not quality. Just because you’re forced fed, it doesn’t mean it tastes good.

While hockey is forced upon us, Canadians remain starved for soccer.

With soccer, it’s quality, not quantity that counts. Unlike hockey, you can’t put any two-bit soccer broadcasts out there and call it gold — soccer fans see right through it.

Pushing high-interest match-ups (Impact vs. Santos) to little-known, little-watched channels at a time only few can watch does nothing to satisfy the appetite of the Canadian viewer either.

Canadian soccer doesn’t have a ’72 Summit Series defining moment to its resume. The fact Canada is ranked 86th in the world doesn’t take anything away from Canada’s soccer culture either.

Canada’s soccer culture is truly grassroots and has been bred over time.

Grande was right to point out what Canada really is.

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