TORONTO — The magic of the FA Cup is a well-documented phenomenon in English football.
Whether it be the miraculous runs of lower-league clubs like Lincoln City, Luton Town, Bradford City or the Wycombe Wanderers – among many others, throughout the years – or the brilliant last-gasp efforts that end tilts with dramatic finales, England’s old (almost ancient) domestic Cup competition is filled with stories of improbable footballing triumphs.
That same spirit of overcoming adversity, of Davids vs. Goliaths, of underdogs and giants, is now set to play out in the newly-expanded Canadian Championship, as the Canadian Premier League’s seven founding clubs join the hunt for the Voyageurs Cup in 2019.
And for English-born manager Tommy Wheeldon Jr. of Cavalry FC, capturing the magic of the domestic Cup will be tantamount to success.
The CPL’s involvement in the competition will see the seven clubs take on a trio of MLS franchises, as well as other clubs from lower leagues like the USL, PLSQ and League1 Ontario.
As such, Wheeldon Jr. hopes to entertain both sets of opposition at Spruce Meadows.
“For me, it’s about that David vs. Goliath, so having these semi-pro and amateur clubs in there is great,” Wheeldon Jr. said, when asked for his thoughts on the expanded competition ahead of the draw for the 2019 affair.
“You know, I’d love to face one of the (lower league teams), because I think it’s great for them, great for us, that we’re on this journey, and it gives them their day out.
“I’ve been there myself and I realize what a great moment it is for them. If we’re truly in it to grow the game, I’d love to bring them out and play them at Spruce Meadows. It would be great if they go back and tell the story of the Cavalry and playing here.
“And, we understand we’ve got the hard yards and that we have to prove ourselves on the pitch, too – who wouldn’t want to get to the semifinals and play one of the MLS clubs?”
He continued: “I’ll tell you this now – for me, this is a fairy tale story, so every game will be a Cup final. Every single game will be a Cinderella story. So we’re going all-in from day one.”
Those Cinderella stories often involve a smaller team triumphing over a much grander foe: For the Canadian Championship, it would require a CPL team to defeat one of Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact or the Vancouver Whitecaps in the later stages of the competition.
HFX Wanderers FC head coach Stephen Hart offered that one must be “realistic” when assessing the competition. He admitted there is a quality gap, and “denying that would be foolhardy,” but he affirmed to CanPL.ca that he’ll be taking the Cup seriously, regardless.
“You can have different approaches,” Hart explained. “You can give your young players some valuable experience in a highly-competitive situation, which is different from the league because you have to get results over two games. Or you can decide that this Cup competition is a high priority for the club and we would like to go as far as possible in it. Whatever approach you take, it’s still only two games; anything can happen.”
He continued: “Every single coach in our league would love the opportunity to play against an MLS team, because of the reality of who the MLS are. You come up against a team that would be the favourite, and you’d be the underdog. That’s the best scenario in football.
“Certainly, I think for HFX Wanderers, we’d like to get as far as possible and play against an MLS team, just for the players to experience the magnificence of the Cup and the relevance of playing more established teams.”
While he doesn’t have any particular opponent he’d most like to face, the fact that so many different teams are now involved across Canada is reason enough for Hart to take pause and reflect on how far the game has grown in the country.
“I think this new ‘tradition’ is fantastic,” Hart said, of the Cup. “It ties in the whole country with a Cup competition. It would have been nice, in terms of creating that giant-killing underdog atmosphere, if it was one game, winner takes all, but I think it’s important for the country to have a Cup competition that really pits all the teams against each other.
“But it’s exciting that now it’s genuinely coast-to-coast.”
The 2019 Canadian Championship draw will be held on Feb. 12, with 24 matches set over five rounds making this year’s iteration the largest-ever for the competition.