VANCOUVER, BC – In the end, it was the Italian.
No, not the Italians. It wasn’t the trio of some of MLS’s most expensive players, yet the man who took his shirt off ran around the pitch after only getting the job after the club lost in the same competition 13 months earlier.
Eventually, the acquisitions and price paid for Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Dominico Criscito will pay off for Toronto FC; there’s little chance it won’t. Still, on Tuesday, Vanni Sartini draped the Italian flag over his shoulders in celebration.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, who had fallen twice to CPL competition in the Canadian Championship through the last several years, won the 2022 Voyageurs Cup on penalties against Toronto after running the gauntlet of CPL sides throughout the bracket.
“We said from Day 1 that the Canadian Championship was one of our important trophies,” Sartini told reporters. “We didn’t do well in the previous years, and it means everything because we are a very good team.”
In front of 24,307 supporters, the second largest crowd in competition history, the Whitecaps began the match with a vitality that has often eluded them in first halves through league play. With the cup on the line, and the fans behind them on a muggy Tuesday evening, Vancouver seemed to have figured it out, bursting out of the gates against TFC.
An energetic start and high press lead the way
In just the first minute, Lucas Cavallini forced TFC’s Alex Bono into a quick save, and that was only the beginning of Vancouver’s eclectic attacking pressure. While Toronto’s star power began to settle into the match, the home side kept advancing, finding the back of the net in the 19th minute as they maintained pressure off a corner kick.
While the Whitecaps have added quality throughout the 2022 season, it was two 2021 acquisitions that linked up rekindling some of the magic they found down the stretch of Vancouver’s run to the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Brian White headed home a perfectly curled-in cross from Ryan Gauld, sending the Vancouver crowd abuzz amid the shock of getting the opening tally.
The home side maintained their pressure, highlighted by a very defined 3-4-3, including an unrelenting high press that nearly forced both Bernardeschi and Michael Bradley into turnovers. Andres Cubas, Vancouver’s new midfield linchpin, continued his strong play, as Russell Teibert also chipped in with a strong performance.
Vancouver’s opportunities primarily came through counter-attacks, with Toronto holding the majority of possession, ending the night with 71 percent of the ball and 693 completed passes, compared to just 293 for Vancouver.
Despite their constant control of the play, TFC could not work the ball through the Whitecap’s high press and solid midfield, often shooting from outside the box. “The guys just have so much grit. They’re all fighters,” said Ryan Raposo post-match. “We’re not a team full of individuals — we’re a team, we work together toward a common goal, and that’s what happens — you win trophies.”
However, despite the Whitecaps holding on and maintaining their structure, it took a moment of brilliance from Toronto to find the breakthrough, as Bernardeschi’s outside of the foot cross found Lukas MacNaughton’s head giving the former CPLer his first goal with Toronto and an all-important tying tally.
“They scored the goal because, again, they have top players, the only player who can make that cross is Bernadeschi in the league,” Sartini said.
Championship decided on penalty kicks
The Whitecaps continued to push after conceding, including a near-perfect Tosaint Ricketts chance being stopped by Bono; however, the match made its way to penalties, something the Whitecaps had already experienced in the tournament’s second round against Cavalry.
The challenge, none of Vancouver’s penalty takers from that second-round match were on the pitch to take a kick.
“I was confident, and I was also a little bit pissed. Because I think we deserved to win,” Sartini said of going to penalties.
After exchanging goals, Toronto midfielder Jonathan Osorio struck the post before Whitecaps defender Tristan Blackmon slotted home the winning kick to clinch the club’s first title since 2015.
“I kind of thought it would end that way when I was fifth,” he said. “And it was on the plate for me to go at it. And luckily I tucked it in.”
More than just a trophy,
There is no denying that the Whitecaps don’t have the quality of Toronto FC on paper. However, the Canadian Championship win comes at a time when the Whitecaps may have their best-ever MLS roster and one with players at ages where they should, and could, be contending for much more.
“Today was a special game, everybody was pumped, and I think that we need to take the quality of the first half. If we play like this for the next 12 games in the league, we’re going to the playoffs,” Sartini said. “Tonight it’s beautiful; we all get drunk, we celebrate, but then we have to go to Nashville to get points on the weekend.”
When the Whitecaps won against the Montreal Impact in 2015, it seemed like that would be the turning point. A group led by Carl Robinson and captained by Pedro Morales, an MLS contender, never came to be, but it could be a different case in 2022, with Sartini at the helm.
In 2022, the Whitecaps disposed of their CPL demons, getting past Valour, Cavalry and York before dispersing Toronto FC. As chants of “Campeones, Campeones, Campeones,” rang throughout BC Place and beer flowed freely, hours after the match, it showed what Vancouver soccer could be.
In the end with over 24,000 fans in attendance, it was the Italian, and not the Italians that became the story of the night, and Gauld, the games’ MVP, had the perfect plan. “That MVP trophy looks like it could fit a good six or seven beers in it, so I’m going to check that out and see how I get on.”