Cups matter in soccer. The trophy room in any European stadium is hallowed. Sometimes it even jumps to the skin. Head coach Vanni Sartini got a tattoo of the Voyageurs Cup after his Vancouver Whitecaps won it last year.
The 46-year-old Florentine, tattoo and all, brings his Whitecaps into Starlight Stadium tonight as the holders continue their quest to repeat. The B.C. derby semifinal in the 2023 Canadian Championship for the Voyageurs Cup, between the Whitecaps of Major League Soccer and host Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League, goes at 7 p.m. in what is expected to be a raucous venue.
When asked if he would follow suit if PFC won the Voyageurs Cup, Tridents head coach James Merriman replied he isn’t a tattoo sort of guy.
“But it shows it was a special moment for [Sartini],” he said.
History hangs over tonight’s much-anticipated cross-strait semifinal beyond the Caps’ being defending holders. No one in B.C., or even Canadian, soccer will soon forget the Tridents’ pulsating 4-3 upset of the Whitecaps in the 2021 Voyageurs Cup quarter-finals at Starlight Stadium.
That’s when PFC “turned the corner as a club,” said Merriman, as the Tridents went on to win the CPL championship that year. The loss to the Tridents still haunts the Whitecaps organization.
“[The Whitecaps] are going to be incredibly motivated by the last result here,” said Merriman.
Cup play brings a sort of democracy to soccer that is absent in North American pro sports. There is no chance in hockey of seeing the Canucks play AHL or ECHL teams in games that matter.
The fluidity of cup play in soccer has allowed for giant-killing moments when teams from lower leagues rise up to slay teams from higher leagues or divisions, such as when PFC upset the Whitecaps in 2021 and when fellow CPL club Cavalry FC of Calgary did the same to the ’Caps in 2019.
TSS Rovers of League1 B.C. provided another such upstart tale in the Voyageurs Cup when they upended Winnipeg’s Valour FC of the CPL 3-1 in this year’s opening round before giving PFC all it could handle deep into the second half, eventually succumbing 2-0 in the quarter-finals.
“TSS provided a great storyline. Now it’s our job to do the same,” said Merriman.
It won’t be easy to provide a repeat of 2021. The discrepancy between the MLS and CPL is staggering. The Whitecaps’ player payroll for this season is $12.7 million US, and that ranks the ’Caps only 23rd in the MLS among 29 teams.
The CPL season salary range per team is $750,000 to $1.125-million Cdn. Whitecaps midfielder Ryan Gauld alone, at $2.4-million US per season, makes more than double the entire Pacific FC team.
“We can’t compare financially or in terms of resources,” said Merriman.
“It has to come down to our belief. That is the most important thing. You can’t compare other things. It’s impossible.”
The Tridents are 3-1-2 in wins-losses-draws in the CPL and 2-0 in the Canadian Championship. The Whitecaps, coming off a 2-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders, are 4-4-5 in MLS. The Whitecaps are 1-0 in the Canadian Championship after dispatching York United of the CPL 4-1 in the quarter-finals following a first-round bye.
PFC’s high-field pressure has proven effective this season in the CPL but the question going into tonight is will it work against an MLS opponent?
“We have to be true to ourselves and who we are,” said Merriman. “But we have to respect the quality they have and can’t be naïve.”
Then it’s up to the soccer gods if lightning strikes twice at Starlight Stadium.
“We are incredibly hungry to do it again,” said Merriman.
“It comes down to the football on the field. We’re going to make it difficult for them, for sure.”
Tonight’s winner will host the winner of the other Canadian Championship semifinal, at Stade Saputo between CF Montréal of MLS and Hamilton’s Forge FC of the CPL, in the Voyageurs Cup final to be played between June 6-8.
The 2023 Voyageurs Cup winner will earn a berth in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions League.