In company of Champions?

NICK HEFFERNAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:20 PM ET

Canada's three professional soccer teams, including Toronto FC, will participate in a qualification tournament to determine this country's representative in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League.

With the support of the Canadian Soccer Association, TFC, along with the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact will participate in a six-game, double round-robin tournament with the winner advancing to the opening round of the Champions League for the 2008-09 season.

The winner of that will head to Japan and take on some of the world's best teams in the FIFA World Club Championship, with the victor taking home $5 million US.

Tom Anselmi, the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., and a governor of Major League Soccer, said there is no more pressure than usual for TFC to advance to the Champions League, even though it is the only MLS side out of the three teams.

Both the Whitecaps and Impact play in the United Soccer League's First Division

"There is always pressure to win," Anselmi said. "We're looking for the team to do better than last year. We want to be more competitive this year and hopefully we'll be good enough to win this tournament."

The original idea was to have a friendly tournament between the three sides, but when the CONCACAF Champions Cup was revamped to include 24 teams, Canada received an opening.

"We had the idea long before CONCACAF developed the tournament, but now the games will be meaningful," Anselmi said.

Mexico and the United States will each have four teams in the CONCACAF tournament, while Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama will have two apiece. Belize and Nicaragua will each have one representative and three Caribbean sides also will participate.

Bob Lenarduzzi, the Vancouver Whitecaps president, said the qualification tourney is proof that soccer is growing in Canada.

"This is a monumental day," he said. "Outside of the brief period in the '70s when the New York) Cosmos were doing their thing, this is without doubt the most exciting period for the sport in our country. It provides a focus we've never had in the country."

While the tourney is good news for the professional teams, Anselmi said it is an opportunity to get young Canadians excited about soccer.

"This supports our goal of motivating the next generation of Canada's soccer talent and show them that they have professional soccer teams to aspire to," he said.

The qualification tournament kicks off in Montreal on May 27 when the Impact plays host to TFC and will conclude with the return match at BMO Field on July 22.

Another big day at BMO is when TFC hosts the Whitecaps on Canada Day.

Details for ticket sales will be available later in the spring, but Anselmi said TFC season-ticket holders will get the first opportunity.

IMPACT MOVE

Impact president Joey Saputo also revealed yesterday that he has teamed up with George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadiens and co-owner of Liverpool FC, to help with his bid to get an MLS franchise.


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