The draw for the 2023 Canadian Championship was conducted at OneSoccer’s headquarters on Tuesday night, as the 14 competitors learned a lot more about what their path to hoisting the Voyageurs’ Cup could look like.
All eight Canadian Premier League sides enter the competition in the preliminary round, which means they each know at least one opponent they’ll have to get through on the way to the final.
That first round of matches is set to be played between April 18-20, so just after the beginning of the CPL season, which means each side will be hoping their preseason preparations have set them up for a strong start out of the gates.
Here are a few of the most intriguing storylines to come out of Tuesday’s draw.
Two non-MLS teams guaranteed in semifinals
The first thing to stand out about this year’s bracket is that, for the second time since CPL teams entered the competition, at least two teams outside of MLS clubs Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, and CF Montréal are guaranteed to be in the final four.
Toronto and Montréal could meet in the quarter-finals — the earliest ever stage for an all-MLS clash — thanks to TFC’s bye to that round and Montréal’s preliminary fixture with Vaughan SC. That means that one of Forge FC, FC Laval, Halifax Wanderers, or Atlético Ottawa will appear in one semifinal.
On the other side of the bracket, either TSS Rovers, Valour FC, Pacific FC, or Cavalry FC will play in the semifinal. Defending champions Vancouver Whitecaps will go on the road to play a CPL side in York United or Vancouver FC, with one of those three clubs completing that western semifinal.
In the 2021 tournament, both Forge and Pacific of the CPL went to the semis, but neither managed to get to the final. Forge lost a heartbreaking 11-round shootout to CF Montréal at Tim Hortons Field, while Pacific lost 2-1 at Toronto’s BMO Field.
This time, one of the eight CPL teams — or, perhaps, one of the three semi-pro sides — will be desperate to get to that final and be the first from their league to lift the trophy.
Western bracket shaping up nicely for CPL teams?
In terms of which CPL sides might have the better shot at lifting said trophy, look to the west. There’s only one MLS team (the Whitecaps) on that side of the bracket — although, functionally, the CPL teams in the east would also only need to beat one to get to the final.
The good news for Valour, Pacific, and Cavalry (or TSS Rovers, of course) is that one of them will host the semifinal. The Whitecaps aren’t necessarily guaranteed to get that far, either — their quarter-final tie is drawn to be on the road against York or Vancouver FC.
And of course, the finalist from the western half of the bracket will also have the right to host the final. That privilege worked out well for the Whitecaps in 2022 when they beat Toronto FC at home, and for CF Montréal in 2021 when they, likewise, beat TFC.
Pacific and Cavalry have met twice before in this competition, with Pacific winning 1-0 in 2021 and the Cavs taking a two-legged tie in 2019 4-1 on aggregate. This will be the fifth total game of knockout football between the rival sides, including their 2021 CPL semifinal clash.
Both teams will be ravenous for a rematch with the Whitecaps, too: Cavalry lost a close one on penalties to VWFC at ATCO Field last year, though they beat them over two legs in 2019. Pacific, meanwhile, took down the ‘Caps in a memorable all-B.C. clash in 2021 that finished 4-3.
That said, perhaps neither team gets another shot at the Whitecaps: York United, similarly, are hungry to take on the MLS side again after losing to them in last year’s semifinal.
Could this be the year a CPL team gets its hands on the trophy? And, could the Voyageurs’ Cup stay in the western half of Canada in consecutive years for the first time in its history?
CanChamp/CPL doubleheaders on the horizon
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. In the preliminary round, three sets of combatants will already be familiar with each other: York United host Vancouver FC in the Canadian Championship, just days before they host VFC in CPL action on April 22. Plus, Atlético Ottawa and Halifax Wanderers square off in their first match of the season on April 15, before reconvening in this tournament days later.
Likewise, Pacific and Cavalry have been drawn to play at Starlight Stadium in their first Canadian Championship match, and the two sides will renew hostilities the following weekend (April 23) in the same place.
This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen this sort of back-to-back matchup across the two competitions. Last year, York United played Pacific in Langford twice in a row — a 0-0 draw in the league on a Friday night, followed by a thrilling 2-2 Canadian Championship draw that York won on penalties the following Tuesday.
A draw like this sets up some further intrigue in these first-round matches. How do coaches approach their cup ties? With the league season so young, do they lay all their cards on the table in their openers? Or do they save something for the midweek knockout game?
Vaughan land rare chance for massive cupset
Maybe the biggest surprise of this year’s draw was League1 Ontario club Vaughan SC earning a trip to Stade Saputo and a fixture against MLS side CF Montréal.
This will be the first time a semi-pro team has ever faced off against an MLS outfit in the Canadian Championship, with the league first participating in the tournament in 2018. A few of the League1 and Première ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ) sides have come close against CPL teams — most notably, Vaughan themselves against Halifax in 2018 — but have yet to beat one.
Now, Vaughan head straight into the lion’s den in Montréal. This match will be an unprecedented opportunity for the club to test themselves in a do-or-die game against surely the strongest opponent they’ve ever faced in a competitive game.
Patrice Gheisar — former Vaughan boss who’s now taken over Halifax Wanderers — will be watching eagerly, as many of the players he coached last year take on an MLS opponent. Of course, if all goes to plan for the Wanderers themselves, they could find themselves taking on Montréal or Vaughan in a potential semifinal.
This isn’t the first Montréal-Vaughan connection, of course. Kamal Miller of CF Montréal kicked off his senior career with Vaughan in L1O — as did, of course, Alistair Johnston, who just moved from Montréal to Celtic FC.
There’s no doubt that Vaughan beating Montréal would be by far the biggest upset in Canadian Championship history. If recent cup competitions around the world are any indication, though, maybe cupsets are in the air this year? If Darvel can beat Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup, and Sheffield United can (possibly) fall to Wrexham in the FA Cup, why can’t Vaughan slay a giant of their own?