Within the last decade Major League Soccer has undergone rapid expansion, surviving a retraction in teams just six years after its inception to now enjoying a tremendous spurt in growth since 2007. There is an ever-growing hope for the North American league as the curtain raises on its 17th season today, with interest in football specifically taking an unprecedented grip on pockets found in the Pacific North-west and the United States’ Midwest region.
The instalment of three North-western based clubs in Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps has served as a reminder of the heights football has yet to reach in North America in terms of fandom. The trio not only form a unique close-set rivalry in a geographically expansive league, but last season emerged alongside Sporting Kansas City as a benchmark for footballing culture in both the United States and Canada. And as that fanfare is sure to flourish throughout 2012, the league has set its sights on developing rivalries anew, welcoming Montreal Impact into their Canadian ranks.
Impact became the second Canada-based club in as many years to join MLS, with Whitecaps taking to the pitch for the first time last year after Toronto FC laid marker for the concept back in 2007. “We’re very excited about being in Montreal,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “It is an opportunity for us to connect with a new culture.”
A blend of two cultures
Montreal, based in the largely French-Canadian settled Quebec province, presents a unique populous of combined North American and European culture and is proving to be positive new ground for MLS. Impact are set to begin their MLS tenure as the league’s 19th franchise against Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place today, and it is a match-up of fitting fashion as the two clubs share common history.
Though the two sides are newcomers to the top-tier league, neither are new to the North American footballing landscape. Whitecaps were formed nearly 40 years ago in 1974 as part of the North American Soccer League. Montreal, meanwhile, had two sides in Olympique and Manic cease operations in that league before Impact was founded in 1992 as a member of the American Professional Soccer League. “It’s a market that’s got a team that’s deeply imbedded in the community and the culture, and there’s a long history,” said Garber on Montreal Impact. “Quebec represents the international character that really personifies what is great about our sport. This is what is driving and empowering this opportunity we have to create a very vibrant and popular sport in the US and Canada.”
Whitecaps and Impact last met in the 2011 Canadian Championship, with Whitecaps taking the spoils in a two-legged semi-final tie to advance to the final where they ultimately lost to Toronto FC. Whitecaps have since impressed throughout pre-season training this year after a disappointing inaugural campaign in MLS, and are looking forward to today’s once-only clash with Impact this season. “There has been a rivalry just because it’s two Canadian teams that fought very hard at the top of the second division for many years and I’m sure that rivalry will continue,” said Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie.
As Whitecaps first season suggests, it will not be all smooth sailing for Impact and their debut in MLS will likely bear its challenges. Whitecaps not only finished last in the Western Conference in 2011, but ended joint-last in the league on just 28 points with New England Revolution. Whitecaps have gone through a transformation, though, appointing Rennie as head coach last November, while also sealing a real coup in forward Sebastien Le Toux from Philadelphia Union. Meanwhile, Montreal will seek to avoid the expansion-club blues with Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts in between the sticks and up-and-coming talent in top SuperDraft pick Andrew Wenger.
With a revamped Whitecaps side hoping to turn the tide in their second season and Impact hoping to make history with an opening win on old enemy’s ground, the start to Major League Soccer’s 17th season marks a new era in rivalries. Although, no matter the result, on thing is for certain: the future of football is bright in Canada as three sides in Toronto, Whitecaps, and Impact now vie for top-tier glory.