There is no doubt that the Whitecaps’ exit in the semifinals of the Voyageurs Cup on Tuesday night against the Montreal Impact was a disappointment for players and supporters alike, but there was one element missing from the Whitecaps’ games: a serious line-up.
The first leg of the semifinals, which the Whitecaps were fortunate to win 2-1 at home, featured no players that had started in the last five MLS games, while the second leg, which the ‘Caps lost 4-2 eliminating them from the Canadian Championship, featured largely the same starting eleven with a few changes, but far from enough to make them competitive enough to win.
The Impact, however, fielded much stronger teams, allowing them to go through to the final against Toronto FC. The first leg featured star players like Belgian international centreback Laurent Ciman, Argentine midfielder Hernan Bernardello, among other starters, while Montreal played designated player and their best striker Ignacio Piatti for a full 90 minutes along with Ciman and other top Impact players in game two.
For the Whitecaps, the biggest names were missing. While Montreal’s top players featured over the two legs, there was no Kendall Waston, Matias Laba, or Fredy Montero for the ‘Caps. Instead, fringe and reserve players like Mauro Rosales, Marco Bustos, and Kyle Greig played for the blue and white. While the Impact had strong options off the bench like their captain Patrice Bernier or Daniel Lovitz, young WFC2 players like Sean Melvin, David Norman Jr., and Gloire Amanda took up valuable spots on the Vancouver bench that could have been filled by options like Montero or Laba.
There’s a good argument to be made for giving young and fringe players a shot, but going up against a team as capable as the Montreal Impact in the only competition that can qualify your club for the CONCACAF Champions League is not the time to do so.
Some may come to the defence of the Whitecaps arguing that the Impact had the weekend off while Vancouver went up against DC United, but there’s a big difference between MLS and the Canadian Championship for Canadian teams. Unlike American teams who can qualify for the Champions League by winning the Supporters’ Shield, by having the best regular season MLS record; the MLS Cup, by winning in the playoffs; and finishing first in the conference opposite the MLS Cup winning in the regular season; along with the US Open Cup, Canadian teams can only qualify through the Canadian Championship.
While the league is important, any team’s ambition should be to qualify for the Champions League and fight for the lucrative berth in the FIFA Club World Cup where they get to play competitive matches against the best clubs in the world. As winning the Voyageurs Cup is the only current path to continental, and potentially international, play for Canadian clubs, the Vancouver Whitecaps need to follow the lead set by Toronto and Montreal and take the competition seriously.
The 34-game MLS season is long, especially in comparison for the four games an MLS team would play to win the Canadian Championship. If one or two of those 34 MLS games suffered to allow for Voyageurs Cup success and continental qualification, I’m sure Vancouver’s fans would forgive them. Furthermore, as the Whitecap loss on the weekend against DC United proves, saving players for MLS games isn’t always successful either.
After seeing former coach Martin Rennie neglect the competition, it was nice to see Carl Robinson commit to results in the Canadian Championship and it worked with the ‘Caps winning their only Voyageurs Cup in 2015. It seems that since then Robinson has fallen into the trap of prioritising MLS play, however, and as a supporter, I sincerely hope that trend stops soon to bring more domestic and continental success to BC Place.