Nutrilite Canadian Championship: MLS Teams Vie For CONCACAF Champions League Spot

Whether you call it the Nutrilite Canadian Championship or the Voyageurs Cup, this might very well be the two biggest games the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC play this year. Both teams are mired in so far disappointing MLS campaigns and the two-legged final that starts Wednesday  at 10 p.m. (EST) represents a chance to not only win their national championship, but also to earn a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.

As a way of previewing the series, I've asked our resident Canadians to give us a look at each of their teams. Benjamin Massey of 86 Forever will be providing the Whitecaps' angle, while Duncan Fletcher of  Waking the Red will give us the Toronto FC perspective.

How Seriously is your team taking this?

Waking the Red: I’d like to think very seriously. Entry into the CCL is a great prize that’s well worth qualifying for, and given how the MLS season is working out so far, a trophy and a cup run would be a much needed diversion. To the supporters at least, the tournament and title of Canadian Champions is also important in and of itself with all sorts of multi-layered regional rivalries in play. Going by the strong lineups Aron Winter put out against Edmonton in the semi final, it seems like he also understands the importance of the competition and the team is in it to win it. I’d be surprised and disappointed by anything other than the first choice team in both legs, let the B team play in the weekend’s MLS game in Colorado.

86 Forever: The Vancouver Whitecaps have always made a point of taking the Voyageurs Cup seriously. This year they've prioritized well above the league. Core players like Alain Rochat, Jonathan Leathers, and Davide Chiumiento were rested, either for the whole game or most of it, against New England to ensure they'd be fresh and ready to take on Toronto FC. The Whitecaps have made no bones about seeing the Voyageurs Cup as a seriously important event and are clearly looking forward to a visit to the CONCACAF Champions League in their first season of MLS competition.

How did you team get here?

Waking the Red: Toronto’s semi final was against NASL expansion club FC Edmonton, and TFC got a scare in the first leg as the first half was very even despite the Reds putting out a strong lineup. After Edmonton were reduced to ten men though, TFC’s experience and numerical advantage came into play and they rode their luck to get to 3-0, with two goals from Maicon Santos, and one from Alan Gordon and then killed the game off from there. Joao Plata got his first start in that game and was TFC’s best player, as he was again in the second leg, which was pretty much a formality and played out that way, a dull 1-0 TFC win probably most notable for the injury that has kept Alan Gordon out of the lineup since.

86 Forever: Vancouver made it to the final by getting through old rivals (and 2012 MLS expansion team) the Montreal Impact in the semi-final. Montreal head coach Marc dos Santos made a point of criticizing Vancouver boss Teitur Thordarson's lack of tactical creativity but before the first game, but Vancouver tore Montreal the figurative new one in their first game and were extremely unlucky to escape with only a 1-0 victory in Montreal. Of course, the luck rebounded in the second leg, where the Impact played ferociously. Montreal won 1-0 in ninety minutes and the tie went to extra time, where center back Mouloud Akloul got the eventual winner and the Whitecaps just dodged death when Montreal striker Ali Gerba headed a golden chance just past the post as time expired.

Who are the players to watch?

Waking the Red: Left Winger Joao Plata’s been the star of the show recently, bringing some much needed flair, creativity and energy to the attack. As well as his own skill, he seems to lift the rest of the team when he’s playing, he has very good chemistry with Maicon Santos and it’s alarming how much TFC’s attack has depended on him recently. Since switching to a ‘point back’ midfield three, Julian de Guzman in the defensive midfielder role has looked a lot better, as has Tony Tchani, now playing a more advanced midfield role and looking a lot more confident, providing a physical prescence in the last few games.

86 Forever: Which players in the Vancouver lineup you should watch really depends on who's healthy. The key player for the Whitecaps may be midfielder Davide Chiumiento. Chiumiento is a former Swiss league star who's struggled with fitness, been mercurial, put in questionable efforts, and also happens to be one of MLS's leading playmakers whose nickname, "The Swiss Ronaldinho", is fully earned when he's on his game. When he's on his game! Chiumiento dogged it in the first round against the Impact and has made noises in the media about being unhappy where he's playing. His fellow former Swiss league star, left back Alain Rochat, will also play a key role for the team in both defense and attack.

Keys the victory

Waking the Red: Stefan Frei has been a busy busy man in goal, and he’ll no doubt be called upon many times to keep Toronto in the tie. The Central Defensive pairing of Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams is just about solid, but Julian de Guzman and the other midfielders will have to help out the full backs, especially whoever ends up at Left Back as defending from out wide has been a weak spot all year. Up front, TFC need Joao Plata to continue his recent inspired form, and hope some of the other forwards help out more than they have been.

86 Forever: The keys for the Whitecaps are mostly physical. Be healthy. Stay fit. Keep calm. Have loads of energy before what will be a fairly tepid home crowd. They've been victimized by a rough schedule in the past month and a half. But they must also be careful to play their game and not show the signs of panic they evinced against New England at times. The Whitecaps are a good team, but sometimes they need to remember it themselves.

Probable lineups

Waking the Red: Stefan Frei; Richard Eckersley, Dicoy Williams, Adrian Cann, Dan Gargan; Julian De Guzman; Jacob Peterson, Tony Tchani; Nick Soolsma, Maicon Santos, Joao Plata. 4-1-2-3.  

86 Forever: Who knows? The best guess, based on injury status and looks in the preseason, is a 4-2-3-1 arranged as follows: Nolly; Leathers - DeMerit - Akloul - Rochat; Koffie - Dunfield Salinas - Chiumiento - Teibert; Hassli

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