We’re coming up to the first full weekend in January, and that means we’re about to be treated to the best weekend in the English football calendar, the F.A Cup third round.
With the footballing landscape having radically changed over the Premier League era thanks to the sheer amount of money flowing into the game, this is one of the few occasions where the spotlight shines on some of the lower division teams.
While it’s nominally the third round, eight rounds have already been completed, with 763 different teams playing in the competition, some from as low as the 11th tier of English football, and four teams from outside the football league are still involved. While the Manchester derby will predictably and depressingly hog a lot of the attention, two of the four non-league teams are involved in very big games. Tamworth plays at Premier League side Everton, while in what is for me the tie of the round, Fleetwood Town of the Blue Square Premier league (level 5) are at home to local ‘rivals’ Blackpool in what should be a sell out of their 5,500 capacity ground.
It’s a weekend that always makes me wonder if the same sort of thing could happen in Canada. The Voyageurs Cup, the actual trophy itself, already comes with all the romance you could want, after being dreamed up, paid for, named after and presented by the members of the Voyageurs supporters club. But the Nutrilite Canadian Championship only the features the four biggest teams in the country, which means the tournament lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
So, why not make it the truly inclusive, national and meritocratic competition the trophy and the Voyageurs themselves deserve? There would obviously be a lot of logistical challenges to overcome in order to bring clubs from different leagues, under different provincial associations from across such a big country into one single cup competition, but here’s how I could see it working.
First, we need a way for potentially hundreds of amateur clubs to enter, in regional competitions. Fortunately that already exists with the Challenge Trophy being presented to the winner of the championship for amateur teams in Canada each year (in one format or another since 1913!). The current format of that competition ends with a 12-team final stage of provincial and territorial champions, plus a host, to decide the winner.
I’d suggest, as well as contesting that year’s challenge trophy, those 12 teams move on to the first round of the following year’s Voyageurs Cup. Also, if it doesn’t contravene any eligibility rules, let University teams in as well: have the eight finalists for each year’s CIS men’s championship join in the first round the next year. They would be joined there by the D3 and D4 teams from the CSL, PCSL and PDL, with two rounds played to bring the number of remaining clubs down to 12.
This is when the MLS and NASL clubs would enter, in the last 16, leaving them with four games to play to win the tournament, the same as under the current setup. At this point it would be a straight forward knockout competition — no seeding, no guaranteed home games; just numbers drawn out of a hat, perhaps with Voyageurs members themselves conducting the draw, no replays, just extra time and penalties if necessary, win and you’re through to the next round.
This stage is what I see as being the equivalent of the F.A Cup third round, as you could have smaller teams who’ve won a few games now all of a sudden playing the biggest games of their lives against the local big boys. Consider the possibility of Andrea Lombardo and SC Toronto taking on Toronto FC at Lamport Stadium, the McGill Redmen versus the Montreal Impact, the Edmonton Green and Gold of the Alberta Major Soccer League facing FC Edmonton, or the Vancouver Whitecaps travelling across the country to take on the 2010 Challenge Trophy Winners, Churchill Arms F.C.
Imagine the joy and schadenfreude when every few years one of the big clubs slips up and loses to one of the minnows. Imagine the hero status for the factory worker who makes a fool of Jay DeMerit to score the winner against the Whitecaps and become Canada’s version of Ronnie Radford or Tim Buzaglo. Perhaps more importantly, share the gate receipts as they do in England, and imagine the money a successful cup run and game at BMO Field or Saputo Stadium could bring in to a cash-strapped community soccer team.
As for scheduling, have MLS give all the Canadian teams a bye one week in late April and have all eight games spread over one weekend. Sportsnet holds the rights to the NCC, and fortunately all the different regional channels, as well as Sportsnet One and Sportsnet World, would allow them to broadcast every single game — a ‘soccer weekend in Canada’ event, a real celebration of the game from the grass roots up.
Similar to what happens in England every year, feature stories could be done on the smaller teams still in it at this stage, showcasing their history or community connections, or letting viewers get to know the players involved by following them to their day jobs, or have a camera on the team or supporters bus as they travel to the biggest game in their club’s history.
Given MLS’ scheduling responsibilities, the quarter-finals and subsequent rounds would have to be held as mid-week matches, and the really small clubs would probably have been knocked out by then, so some of the magic would disappear, as it does every year in England as well.
But that one third round weekend could become a great annual tradition in Canadian soccer, helping to celebrate and more importantly invigorate and strengthen the game at the lower levels.