Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps face off for more than a trophy Wednesday in the second leg of the Canadian Championship final.
While the Voyageurs Cup comes with a US$50,000 bonus, the real prize is entry into the CONCACAF Champions League, which can boost both a team's bottom line and reputation.
"We've aspired to be one of the leading teams in this league and to me that means you've got be playing in the CONCACAF (Champions League)," said Toronto FC president Bill Manning.
Toronto (2018) and Montreal (2015) have both made it to the final of the regional club competition. Vancouver (2017) advanced as far as the semifinals.
"Our players want to always try to measure their value and where they're at with the best teams in our region, which typically come from Mexico," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. "And the way to do that is through Champions League, more times than not.
"For sure it's another trophy but it's also the one trophy which — in the modern version of (the competition) — has always eluded MLS teams. And so I think the first team to get to that and the (FIFA) Club Championship would be a huge statement for our league and the progress of our league. And I know we all want to be the first."
Toronto and Vancouver will decide the Canadian entry into next year's CONCACAF Champions League when they meet Wednesday. The Whitecaps enter the second leg at a disadvantage after conceding two away goals to Toronto in a 2-2 tie last week at B.C. Place Stadium.
The tying score was a painful own goal by former TFC defender Doneil Henry, who headed the ball into his own net in the 96th minute (Henry suffered a self-inflicted broken hand post-match). Vancouver likely deserved better after playing with 10 men in the wake of Brazilian midfielder Felipe's red card in first-half stoppage time.
The first-leg result means Vancouver needs to win Wednesday or score at least three goals in a draw to lift the Voyageurs Cup. Another 2-2 tie would send the series to extra time, and if needed, a penalty shootout.
Vancouver is riding high after a 2-1 weekend win in Portland that snapped the Timbers' 15-match (10-0-5) unbeaten streak. The Caps are unbeaten in their last five games (3-0-2) in all competitions.
"But we're under no illusions. We know (Wednesday's) game, as Greg puts it, is on their terms. I'm sure he's very confident with the position that they're in," Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson said Tuesday.
"We knew we were underdogs going into the first game. We'll just quietly go about our business. We know we can produce performances when it matters, when it needs. But it will come down to the players. Every game is based on the players."
Vancouver star teenager Aphonso Davies trained briefly Tuesday after missing the Portland with a right hip flexor strain. "Not great," was Robinson's assessment of Davies' condition.
Toronto's 3-2 home loss Sunday to New York City FC, meanwhile, ended a six-game unbeaten (4-0-2) run in all competitions.
The hangover from Toronto's penalty shootout loss to Chivas Guadalajara in the Champions League final back in April took its toll. The reigning MLS champions suffered an emotional letdown while their roster took a physical beating from the gruelling early-season schedule.
As a result, the team has been a shadow of itself most of the 2018 season.
On the plus side, Toronto got four good-sized home gates out of the last Champions League.
"That was a very financially strong run for us," said Manning.
That, in turn, helps finance investment in players with Manning acknowledging that off-season acquisitions were made with the Champions League in mind.
"You need players who can play in those situations and won't be intimidated in those settings," said Manning. "It actually dictated some of the guys we brought in this year that we thought wouldn't be out of sorts playing going that environment."
One of those was veteran defender Gregory van der Wiel, whose 46 Dutch caps include the 2010 World Cup final.
Toronto has won the Canadian Championship six times, including the last two years, since the competition kicked off in 2008. Vancouver has hoisted the trophy once — in 2015 — and finished runner-up on six occasions
VANCOUVER (9-9-6, MLS) AT TORONTO (6-12-5, MLS)
Wednesday, BMO Field
INJURY UPDATE: Brazilian wingback Auro (hamstring) is out for Toronto. Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez is recovering from a chest contusion but may be available. Vancouver's Brazilian midfielder Felipe is suspended.
TICKET COUNT: The Canadian Championship final was not included in Toronto season ticket-holders' packages so it a smaller-than-usual crowd is expected. TFC plans to close the top tier of the East Stand, which seats 8,000, in a bid to concentrate the crowd. Those who normally sit in that stand will be offered an upgrade.
AVAILABLE: Toronto's Chris Mavinga and Jozy Altidore are able to play despite recent red cards in league play.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press