I love cup football. I’ve written and talked about that many times before on AFTN. It’s in my blood. Some of my best footballing memories involve cup matches, both here in Canada and back home in Scotland.
My beloved East Fife have a rich history in cup football, winning the Scottish League Cup three times and holding the record for the lowest ever ranked club to lift the Scottish Cup in 1938. If I had some trips in the TARDIS awaiting, one of them would be whisking me back to Hampden Park for that occasion.
When you support a lower league team, cup games are often the highlight or low point of your season. Cup runs, giantkilling, a local postman scoring a goal to knock out the big boys. When you support one of the “bigger” teams, cup football can be your gateway to international competition and perhaps your only chance of lifting some silverware in a season. The Magic of the Cup and all that.
It’s easy to romanticise it all and when you start getting on a bit like myself, you become a bit misty eyed and do that perhaps a bit too much. Yes, I’m one of those supporters that harp on ad nauseum about the good old days of football, boring the pants off any poor sod within earshot. The days before the money men came in and you had so much football on TV that there’s simply not enough time in a week to watch it all and have any sort of family life. The days when there weren’t just a few big clubs around the world winning everything. The days when cup football mattered.
I’m very guilty of yearning for the footballing days of yore, and they weren’t always as rosy as my cheating memory may think. Some of the conditions we watched games in was third world like. But in amongst those memories is the fact that cup football was far more valued and the competitions cherished parts of the footballing calendar by football clubs big and small. A sad look at some of the crowds and team line-ups from last weekend’s FA Cup Third Rounds matches breaks my heart.
But that’s back in the old country. Here in Canada and North America, I know there’s a very wide mix of attitudes. I understand that cup football is an alien concept to many here brought up on playoff based sports. It’s a curiosity to some, and a needless distraction from the main prize of a championship to others. Yet there are many that love it. The chance, perhaps the only one, to see your club lift a trophy, with CONCACAF Champions League qualification at the end of it (another competition seen as pointless to many I know).
Yet Canada and the US have some wonderful cup competitions steeped in a rich history.
The US Open Cup is a wonderful tournament. One which I envy as a soccer supporter in Canada. At 105 years old, it is the oldest national soccer championship in the US, and it’s so undervalued and underappreciated. I’ve commented before that American soccer fans, on the whole, don’t understand what a special competition they have.
Yet here in Canada, two years before the US Open Cup was founded, we launched our own national competition – the Challenge Trophy. If you polled soccer fans throughout the country it would be interesting to see how many of them knew what it is. The cup to decide the best amateur team in the country, it’s still contested every year, and current BC Provincial Cup champs BCT Rovers Tigers United are the reigning champs.
Here in BC you also have the VMSL’s Imperial Cup, first played for in 1913. The FVSL’s Pakenham Cup, which was first played for even earlier in 1909, although it was “lost” and not played for between 1928 and 1947! The VISL’s Jackson Cup was first played for in 1915 and is still thriving on the island. So cup football has a long and proud history in this country.
But of course if you talk about cup football in Canada today, the majority of fans will immediately think of the Voyageurs Cup.
Founded by the fans and first played for in 2002, the Voyageurs Cup has undergone a number of format changes over the years. Initially given to the Canadian club that had the best points total in matches between other Canadian teams in the USL, the trophy was presented to the Canadian Soccer Association in 2008 to be awarded to the winner of the newly formed Canadian Championship.
The early round-robin format of the Canadian Championship lasted from 2008 to 2010 before moving to a knockout format in 2011. We’ve seen it slowly expand from beyond the three Canadian MLS sides to include first FC Edmonton and then Ottawa Fury. But a five team tournament is hardly a quality national competition, although indicative of the state of professional football in the country.
Many of us yearned for a proper national competition. One opened up to not just the professional sides, but a proper Canadian FA Cup style cup featuring the Canadian PDL teams, the Challenge Trophy winner, and Provincial champions. Maybe even let the local league champs take part.
Sure there were some very real feasibility aspects to that, with teams across Canada playing different kind of schedules and not actually having a squad of players for parts of the year. Then there’s the risk of a hammering or two being handed out, but we’ve just seen a 9-0 shellacking of a team in a major English cup semi-final, so things happen.
Realistically, most of these teams are not going to go too deep into the competition, so concerns over whether a team like TSS Rovers would have a squad to play in the Champions League don’t really come into play. And if it did, you can be damned sure they’d get one!
Hopes were somewhat raised for a proper Canadian ‘Open Cup’ when the CSA allowed the winners of the Première ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ) and League1 Ontario into the 2018 competition, and with the Canadian Premier League starting this year, we knew that the Canadian Championship would now have a much larger field.
The dream was that the CSA would take this opportunity to also allow in Canada’s five USL League Two (formerly PDL) teams, maybe even the Challenge Trophy winners. But the realistic expectations were that it would comprise of the just the 13 teams – the three MLS sides, Ottawa Fury, the L10 and PLSQ champs, and the seven new CPL teams. That’s what we got. Not ideal, but a start, and certainly far better than what we’ve had for years.
Now there were a couple of ways that the CSA could have formatted this year’s Canadian Championship. For me there were really two main possibilities – keep it regional with an East/West split, for the early rounds at least, or have the 10 non-MLS teams play in the first round, before the five winners moved on to play the MLS sides in the second.
The former would have been great for fans, throwing up some great local rivalries and atmospheres from the travelling support. Who wouldn’t want to see Pacific FC take on the Whitecaps? The big issue with a format like this though is the advantage it would give the ‘Caps. The West would be far weaker than the East, who would have three already established professional teams. That would just never fly and makes it unworkable for now.
So surely that could only leave one sensible avenue – a first round of 10 teams to provide a second round of eight. Clear, simple, fair, easy to understand. Common sense. But not so fast.
Instead the CSA have come up with this ridiculous convoluted format:
Yes, you’re reading that right. There’s six teams in round one and six teams in round two, before Ottawa and two of the MLS teams enter in round three, another six team round, and Toronto FC get a bye to the semis.
The PLSQ and L10 champions will be in round one, with four of the seven new CPL teams. Three CPL sides get a bye to the second round. The criteria for deciding those – date of membership of the CSA! FC Edmonton have obviously been around for a while and took a year off, while Forge FC and Valour FC became members in 2017.
Toronto FC get a bye to the semis as defending champions. In some sense, yes, that’s a nice reward, but it another it’s just help create this farcical format.
Each round will be home and away. I was more hoping we’d get a straight knockout akin to the US Open Cup, keeping the number of games down and hopefully seeing the MLS clubs put out their strongest side. Straight knockout matches are what cup football is all about. It builds the excitement of an anything can happen scenario.
A big complaint about cup football is that there are too many matches. If Cavalry FC, for example, were to make the final, they’d have played ten matches in the competition. That’s way too much. Even a run to the semis for one of these teams means eight matches in addition to their league campaign.
If the Whitecaps or Impact make the final, they’ll be playing six games. During a gruelling summer period of MLS. So yeah, good luck seeing them put out strong line-ups. I genuinely don’t think they care about lifting a trophy and Champions League qualification enough to change their prioritising of this competition.
It’s all just creating unnecessary matches, fixture congestion, and complicating what should have been a very easy format.
What a missed opportunity by the CSA to create something special. They had the chance to have a truly national cup competition, open to all. To build some excitement and potential cup shocks with a straight knockout tournament. Instead we’re stuck with a fixture heavy, overly long mess, that will soon see many lose interest in it in some quarters and then gather little interest in it till later on in others. This is not how you get people excited about cup football.
Mind boggling stuff. The more things change, the more things stay the same it seems at the CSA.
Oh well, there’s always 2020.