TORONTO — When Toronto FC won the Canadian Championship last year, the spoils of victory included a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Now it has been told that it must clear another hurdle. Toronto has to win this year’s Canadian Championship or, if it fails to do so, beat the team that does win it to secure the CONCACAF tournament invite it thought it already had.
The Canadian Soccer Association, which made the change, says it was necessitated by a revamped CONCACAF tournament format.
Previously the CONCACAF club championship ran August through April. But starting next year, MLS teams won’t enter the competition until February with the event wrapping up in May.
That created a logjam with Toronto and another possible qualifier emerging from this year’s Canadian championship vying for one spot in the revamped 2018 CONCACAF tournament.
The CSA decided to institute the one-off playoff — this August in Toronto if needed — to get down to one qualifier and correct the pathway from one tournament to the other as soon as possible.
That caused TFC officials to cry foul.
"When we won the (Canadian) tournament last year, we won it under the premise that we were going to then be in the CONCACAF Champions League," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. "I don’t think it’s fair but sometimes things in life aren’t always fair.
"There’s now kind of an odd year where two teams are going to be able to qualify for one year, so they’re going to have to have a playoff at some spot. We were kind of hoping that that would pushed off another year so when everyone entered the tournament they would at least know that existed."
Toronto captain Michael Bradley was also unimpressed by the rule change.
"The whole situation seems a little strange … We had no idea that this was even a question," he said.
"We wanted to win the Canadian championship anyway this year. And now there’s a little extra motivation," he added.
Traditionally five MLS teams qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, one from Canada and four from the U.S. The North American clubs get to add to their home revenue while testing themselves against international club competition.
And there is an added incentive with the CONCACAF Champions League winner, typically a Mexican team in recent years, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean at the FIFA Club World Cup.
The 2017 Canadian tournament starts with a two-legged qualifier between Ottawa Fury FC and FC Edmonton on May 3 and 10.
The home-and-away semifinals are set for May 23 and either May 30/31 with the qualifying-round winner playing top-seeded Toronto while the Vancouver Whitecaps face the Montreal Impact in the other semifinal.
The two-legged final is set for June 20/21 and 27.
The CSA has also instituted a new rule to the Canadian championship that at least three Canadians feature in every starting lineup throughout the competition. That is almost always the case anyway.