The Voyageurs Cup is broadcast poison. Early rounds are no longer even televised; the semi-final and final make TSN on weird Wednesday evenings packed with Canadian Soccer Association house ads. Yesterday, when the 2018 edition kicked off, you could watch only on an obscure streaming service. I know a few serious Canadian soccer fans who had forgotten it was starting at all.
That match was a historic one, too, between AS Blainville of the Première ligue de soccer du Québec and League1 Ontario’s Oakville Blue Devils. It was the first time teams from a domestic Canadian league had ever played in our national soccer championship, which for its first ten tournaments belonged to MLS, USL, and the NASL.
A big occasion, featuring little teams with few names. I consider myself well-informed and could remember precisely two players from Blainville: futsal star Nazim Belguendouz and former Impact and Fury journeyman Pierre-Rudolph Mayard1. For Oakville I can get to one, veteran Stephen Ademolu. And I could not fault you for picking out three totally different names, or not recognizing any at all. I have seen L1O and PLSQ games, and liked them, but USL they ain’t.
However, I live in British Columbia so these two teams should not care what I think. Nor should they care about those TV or web-stream viewing numbers. Even MLS doesn’t make serious money from television, and no team at the local level will rely on broadcasts to survive. Mocking ratings for these games is like criticizing Vic Rauter for his political commentary, it misses the point completely.
If you did watch the stream you’ll understand. Nominally a Blainville home game, it was played a half-hour drive away at the Bois-de-Boulogne Complex in Laval. Yet the touchline was crowded with fans. The Blainville supporters were passionate enough to be criticized, setting off pyrotechnics mid-play, barracking any Ontarian in sight, allegedly even prodding players with flags. In MLS, or any North American major league, those guys would not have gotten past security and been swiftly tazed if they had. In the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup’s first round it provided an electric atmosphere. When Mayard scored a stoppage-time winner and the smoke went off and the supporters destroyed ad hoardings as they rushed the pitch, it was pure, communicable happiness.
Now some of this was undoubtedly General Quebec Solidarity. Quebec’s grassroots supporters culture is not like the Rest of Canada, and sticking it to the anglos will always draw some support regardless of context2. I would bet, with no inside information at all, that a significantg part of that pitch invasion was carried out by people at their first AS Blainville match. But to the Montreal Impact that game would have been virtually pointless, hardly worth a train ride to Pie-IX even if the ticket was free. To Blainville it was enormous, and some of those supporters will be back. Us few distant viewers loved the spectacle, but next to the 1,000-odd fans who paid to get in we are as ants compared to the biggest day in AS Blainville history.
This is not a Quebec soccer slobberfest, much though I admire them. After all, next Wednesday we have the return leg at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan. Tickets are $15, which for amateur soccer is quite a lot. But the game is regardless expected to sell out, and while Oakville has fans who go every week this match has captured many more imaginations than that. This competition, which by Internet standards is trivial, is to the teams involved a sensation.
Let’s hope the Canadian Soccer Association recognizes that. We are talking these days about the Canadian Premier League, hoping for attendances of seven, eight thousand, while Toronto FC fills BMO Field and the Vancouver Whitecaps are derided for only spending a handful of millions on their roster. It is easy to focus on the big time. But that Blainville home game was, by its lights, a huge success. The Oakville leg looks set to be as good. We cannot help but be overjoyed for Ontario and Quebec, but we can still regret how many fine teams in the country could do as well given the opportunity.
There are plenty of communities in Canada that show more interest in very local soccer than outsiders would guess. Hundreds of fans already come out to support Cowichan Valley for a Jackson Cup final in the Vancouver Island Soccer League. Imagine if Cowichan Valley was facing TSS Rovers of the USL PDL in the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup. It would be a riot. Grown men would cry, win or lose. And then the winner of that game plays CanPL Langford, the winner facing the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place, and it all kicks off twice more. Then, multiply that by all the regions of this vast country. You think Edmonton Scottish – Calgary Foothills wouldn’t be a success? You just saw 3,000 people watch Foothills play the FC Edmonton academy, come on.
Of course there are obstacles to a truly open Voyageurs Cup. The Americans manage it, but the Americans also get three rounds before they risk boarding an airplane. If WSA Winnipeg wins their first-round match then all of a sudden Eduardo Badescu is selling poinsettas fundraising for a trip to Hamilton. Moreover, while a USL PDL team could theoretically win the US Open Cup, there are enough professional teams in their way that everyone knows one never will. If Calgary Foothills was in the Voyageurs Cup they would only need two upsets for a team of part-timers and university students to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, and that might get awkward. And Foothills could do it, on their day. To you and me that is a thrill; to the Canadian Soccer Association nervousness is reasonable.
But surely the rewards outweigh the risks. When we talk about how Canada can make the men’s World Cup, we don’t talk about how TFC Academy needs more foreign ex-pat kids who’ve gotten elite coaching since they were four. We talk about how we need the enormous breadth of this dominion to be involved, and recognized, in the common effort. MLS clubs can never do that. Nor, even, can USL or CanPL or any professional league: the population density just isn’t there for some of us to ever make that work. We need ordinary local teams with a chance to display somebody’s excellence. More than that, we need a chance for some community to step forward and say “we have earned a share of the spotlight.” The Voyageurs Cup is the best vehicle we have or will ever get to make that happen.
The reward? One player who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks makes Canada’s senior men’s national team. Let’s be generous and say two. But more than that, somewhere out there, a kid who would have said “I want to play for Paris Saint-Germain” instead says “I want to play for CS Mont-Royal Outremont,” because the first memory he has of truly heart-lifting soccer is CSRMO putting paid to Toronto FC against all odds in the 2022 Voyageurs Cup. And once young Canadians are, more than anything, dreaming of Canadian soccer, then our job is more than half done.