The Voyageurs Cup gets little respect from the press and not enough from some fans, but it is one of the most consistently thrilling tournaments out there.
There’s one. The 2014 Voyageurs Cup kicks off tonight when the Ottawa Fury, recently “promoted” from USL PDL, take on veteran NASL makeweights FC Edmonton at Carleton University (7:30 PM Eastern, 5:30 PM Mountain, 4:30 PM Pacific). It promises to be an interesting game. Neither Edmonton nor Ottawa looks like a contender early but Edmonton’s had a bit more going on: their 1-1 draw in Tampa on a last-minute Tomi Amoebi goal was a genuinely raucous counterpunching affair that could have converted the most sober fan to the excitement, if not the technical excellence, of NASL soccer. They lost 1-0 before an excellent crowd in their home opener to the New York Cosmos but, well, that’s the New York Cosmos: they operate on a slightly different plane from the rest of the league and everyone knows it. Meanwhile, Ottawa has just played mediocre soccer, losing a game home and away against unremarkable opposition. They’re stricken with injuries to the point that Drew Beckie might line up at centre back, paired with the decent but unremarkable Mason Trafford, which could be good for a chuckle. And you can never rely on a Marc dos Santos team not to lose 6-1 at home for no fucking reason.
I’m not saying expect a game for the ages, but the first professional soccer match between Edmonton and Ottawa since August 22, 1990 seems set to be close-fought. Small wonder I, and the bulk of the Edmonton and Ottawa soccer communities, are more excited than Jack Warner with a new Swiss bank account.
Yet, somehow, the Canadian soccer media sits on its thumbs. CBC.ca/sports has nothing on the coming game. TSN.ca/soccer has nothing. TheScore.com has nothing. Sportsnet, self-proclaimed “home of Canadian soccer”, not only has no Voyageurs Cup news on their site but isn’t even bothering to broadcast the game: it will be streamed live on the CSA’s website. Duncan Fletcher over at Waking the Red gets full marks for essaying a post even though he’ll be the first to admit he’s no NASL guru, and you can always count on Daniel Squizzato even if he has an unhealthy love for traumatizing innocent Vancouver-based bloggers. That’s it for national coverage beyond club and league sites. Local scribes have been working: the Edmonton Sun‘s Derek Van Diest took a swing from the “local players” angle and over in Ottawa their Sun‘s Chris Hofley had a look. But if you didn’t live in Edmonton and Ottawa and didn’t already know this game was happening, and what it meant, I can’t imagine how you’d find out.
This is a pity because the Voyageurs Cup is my favourite tournament in soccer. Notwithstanding some recent unpleasantness, when you watch a Voyageurs Cup you can count on upsets, games fought furiously for ninety minutes or more, edge-of-your-seat moments, a heap of schadenfreude past the top of Mount Royal, and just enough controversy to keep things lively. The tournament is too short, but as a consequence each game seems absurdly pregnant with meaning. The format is a little goofy, and will get goofier in 2015 when the champion will qualify for the next season’s CONCACAF Champions League, but, well, that’s Canadian soccer for ya. The soccer is fantastic fun. I bet the last game of last year’s tournament would have been the most thrilling game of the season if I hadn’t been missed it because of the blood pouring from my eyes.
As I said, this doesn’t seem like the most thrilling technical matchup on paper. FC Edmonton has some big forwards in Frank Jonke and Tomi Ameobi. If Ottawa does run the Trafford – Beckie centre back combination one presumes Edmonton will try to exploit them physically. Colin Miller has an unquenchable affinity for the long ball, a slightly dicey midfield passing-wise, and two forwards with the height advantage over Trafford and Beckie. (Jonke will also have the weight advantage, but he’ll have that over any centre back in the NASL and most grizzly bears.) Add a road game on an unfamiliar and rudimentary surface and the siren song of route one soccer could be too strong to resist, leaving Daryl Fordyce as “the guy who can run with the ball” and havin him to do the playmaking while hoping Ritchie Jones and Neil Hlavaty straighten their sights. Unless the Ottawa midfield and defense utterly collapse on themselves, of course. Which they might. There’s been an awful lot of Tony Donatelli in that middle four so far…
Meanwhile, at the back, Edmonton has… well, you know how a defensive line that might not be the flashiest but makes few mistakes is called a “no-nonsense lot”? The Eddies are the opposite of that. They’re a nonsense lot. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, oh no, left back Lance Laing could play for anybody in this league and half the MLS, as could Ottawan and right back Eddie Edward (though both have battled injury). Albert Watson was NASL Best XI last year and earned it. But Laing is a feast-or-famine player who is either jockeying the opposition marvelously into the corner, going on diabolical runs with his dangerous left foot, or giving the ball up so cheaply the opposition wishes pennies were still circulating. One of Watson’s centre back partners, Mallan Roberts, is young and has much to learn (and is hurt); the other, Kareem Moses, can handle the ball but makes mistakes like a poor man’s Jordan Harvey (yes, I know what I just said). Last year it worked, with a lot of help from Carlyle Mitchell, a bit of help from Wes Knight, Laing at his best, and Neil Hlavaty in defensive midfield. Early on this year it’s more-or-less held on with Mitchell in Vancouver, Knight in exile, Laing fighting injury, and Hlavaty on the right wing.
On the other hand, with Ottawa’s Tommy Heinemann injured, the Fury attack relies on the undersized and inexperienced Oliver Minatel, the less undersized and less inexperienced but still not-going-to-write-home-about-him Vini Dantas, Carl Haworth, who tore USL PDL to bloody ribbons but has proven nothing against professionals, and Pierre-Rudolph Mayard, who was a pretty good prospect back in the mid-2000s but hasn’t scored against anybody you’ve heard of since Martin Nash was a going concern. On the other other hand, Richie Ryan, Phil Davies, quality journeyman Nicki Paterson, and this mystery Ghanaian Hamza Elias have just enough going on in attack that they gave the decent Minnesota United back four a scare. (I know he got a nice assist but I’m still not buying Tony Donatelli for a minute. He’s too… Tony Donatelli.)
So you see my interest, even if I don’t expect a technical masterclass. My prediction, sitting here with limited knowledge on either team (it’s so so early, still, and both Edmonton and Ottawa could head off in any direction), is that there’s a draw in Ottawa and the Eddies win it next week at Clarke Stadium. Edmonton has been made favourites, largely on the basis of superior experience, but the Fury have several players who know this level and a whack of names (Donatelli, Davies, Mayard, Trafford, Jarun, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Kenny Caceros, Heinemann, head coach dos Santos, and assistant coach Martin Nash) who’ve played in the Canadian Championship itself. The experience advantage, if it even exists, is not likely to be decisive. I just feel Edmonton has a bit more quality and a lot more strength.
But we’ll see. You never know with the Voyageurs Cup, not until the last whistle of the last minute of the last game. God, what a tournament.
 — 1990 was the last season of Ottawa and Edmonton in the old Canadian Soccer League. I couldn’t find a schedule but presumably they played each other that regular season (neither team made the playoffs). Bill Ault, via Twitter, seems to take the honours for saying Ottawa played in Edmonton for the last time on August 22, 1990. See also Litterer, David. “The Year in American Soccer, 1990.” American Soccer History Archives. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://homepages.sover.net/~spectrum/year/1990.html#CSL.
 — Canadian Soccer Association. “2014 Amway Canadian Championship set to kick off this Wednesday.” CanadaSoccer.com, April 22, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.canadasoccer.com/2014-amway-canadian-championship-set-to-kick-off-this-wednesday-p156218.
 — Fletcher, Duncan. “Voyageurs Cup 2014. Ottawa Fury vs FC Edmonton.” Waking the Red, April 23, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.wakingthered.com/2014/4/23/5641994/voyageurs-cup-2014-ottawa-fury-vs-fc-edmonton-canadian-championship.
 — Squizzato, Daniel. “Voyageurs Cup 2014: A brief ode to the little tournament that could.” Some Canadian Guys Writing About Soccer, April 23, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.canadiansoccernews.com/content.php?5383-A-brief-ode-to-the-little-tournament-that-could-%28and-does%29.
 — Van Diest, Derek. “Canadian championship series a chance for local players to strut their stuff before home crowd.” Edmonton Sun, April 22, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.edmontonsun.com/2014/04/22/canadian-championship-series-a-chance-for-local-players-to-strut-their-stuff-before-home-crowd.
 — Hofley, Chris. “Ottawa Fury takes on other Canadian team.” Ottawa Sun, April 22, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.ottawasun.com/2014/04/22/ottawa-fury-takes-on-other-canadian-team.
 — Cosh, Colby. “A sports fan’s worst nightmare.” Maclean’s, June 13, 2013. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.macleans.ca/authors/colby-cosh/it-can-be-bitter-to-drink-from-the-same-cup/.