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Epic Voyageurs Cup final a boost for tournament’s profile

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Tuesday night was the best Canadian Championship final ever.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking The Red

In a moment of delirious excitement, Raheem Edwards fell as he tried to hop over the advertising boards at the south end of BMO Field. He didn’t stay down for long, however, springing right back to his feet and leaping into the arms of a fan. One by one his teammates followed until the south-east corner of the stadium was a mosh pit of fans, players, security guards and photographers.

Seconds earlier, Sebastian Giovinco had scored his second goal of the game to ensure Toronto FC defended the Voyageurs Cup by beating the Montreal Impact. It was the perfect ending to a game with endless twists and turns. It had controversial calls, tussles, a couple of great goals and a raucous BMO Field atmosphere.

If a marketing team for Canada Soccer had planned out how the second leg of this final was going to go, they couldn’t have written a much better script than what happened organically. The game was an award-winning commercial for what this tournament can become.

“There was a ton of people in the stands who get to experience this live and in person and celebrate with the team,” Greg Vanney said after the match. “It will draw more people to this event. It shows how important this is as an event for all our clubs.”

Tagwa Moyo / Waking The Red

The Voyageurs Cup itself comes from rather humble beginnings. The Voyageurs, a transnational fan group that supports Canadian soccer, paid somewhere between $3,500 and $4,000 for the cup out of their own pockets. They wanted to create a trophy to be awarded to the top club team in the country. The trophy is still escorted to the field by a member of the group. Last night it was carried onto the pitch by friend of Waking the Red and former writer Kristin Knowles.

In terms of fan interest, it was hard to get fans to buy in right away. Attendance, in general, for Canadian Championship games was usually well below average MLS numbers. To be fair, the games usually fell on weeknights during less than ideal times in the season. This year’s second leg of the final was the most attended game in competition history with 26,539 fans, most of whom stayed well after the final whistle to watch the trophy be handed out and the fireworks that followed.

The low attendance numbers, whether the chicken or the egg, are linked with teams not taking the competition very seriously. MLS teams in particular would historically trot out reserves and young players to give them midseason minutes. Designated players only made appearances in the final, if that.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking The Red

Toronto FC maintained throughout this competition how important it was to them. They backed it up on the team sheet. All three designated players made appearances in both legs of the final. The Impact played all of their big guns as well, making this a true best-on-best occasion.

“From the beginning this year this was a huge priority for us. We want to win trophies,” Toronto captain Michael Bradley said after the match.

The atmosphere, the attendance and the intensity of the final was boosted by another key factor: the rivalry between its two combatants. It has gotten to the point now where every time Montreal and Toronto play, something memorable happens.

“The games against Montreal are always crazy,” Clint Irwin, soaked in champagne, told reporters. “There’s always drama, late drama, fouls, red cards. It seems to have everything. Tonight was no different.”

Tagwa Moyo / Waking The Red

The Canadian Championship, despite this being only its 10th edition, is creating quite a catalogue of memorable moments, from Toronto winning 6-1 at Stade Saputo in the ‘Miracle in Montreal’ to Will Johnson’s leg-breaking late winner last year.

But none quite felt as big as last night’s victory. Having the home team win the trophy in such dramatic fashion in front of a tournament-record crowd could be a coming-of-age moment for this competition. The way this final was handled by both teams certainly further legitimized it as a tournament worth watching and winning.

This couldn’t have come at a better time, either. The competition is soon set to expand to include new teams from the Canadian Premier League, League 1 Ontario and the Première Ligue de Soccer du Québec (PLSQ) in the near future. Having more teams, especially those who will be hungry to prove themselves against MLS opposition, has the potential to give this competition more exposure from coast to coast.

One has to wonder if that small group of Voyageurs who chipped in money to buy the Cup all those years ago could ever have dreamed of a moment like last night. You’d have to think it was worth the investment, and is likely to continue to pay even bigger dividends going forward.