A Rivalry Does Not Make A DerbyMLS has done well in growing its rivalry games, but calling them derbies is insincere
by Abram Chamberlain | Tuesday, June 26, 2012
MLS and its two national English-speaking television providers, ESPN and NBC Sports, put on a spectacle this past Sunday. It was MLS’s “Derby Day”. New York Red Bulls and DC United struck up a high scoring exciting display, and on the opposite coast Seattle Sounders FC and Portland Timbers FC put on an equally exciting presentation for the league.
When MLS switched to the unbalanced schedule, it was in part to cut down on travel costs of continually travelling continentally, but it was also to foster local rivalries. The derby game. The game against bitter rivals. The matches that are about more than just the sport. The events that pit communities against each other over much more than soccer.
One problem: MLS does not have derbies.
MLS’s “derbies” – as has been covered multiple times on multiple blogs – are not fostered organically. For the most part, they are corporate rivalries. They are primarily about the sport, and not about other things. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yet, sometimes it seems disingenuous to refer to these matches as derbies as opposed to rivalries.
In European leagues, derbies are not created by leagues. They are bred from contemptuous pasts. They are religious derbies (Celtic-Rangers). They are political derbies (Barcelona-Real Madrid). They are created by neighborly disputes (Millwall-West Ham). With Major League Soccer being relatively new in America, and even the oldest MLS teams’ names and histories only going back to 1974 (Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps – Timbers were created a year later in ’75 and San Jose was defunct from ’82 until 2000), it is tough to really create true derby games.
Imagine for a moment that MLS was created during the turbulence of the American Civil War, or the Japanese Internment Camps, or the Civil Rights Movement, or the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests. Teams that were based in and around cities that were on opposite sides of those issues and within close proximity to one another would probably have closer to what European derbies do. People would have hated each other, would have grown up hating each other, would continue to hate each other. The games played between a hypothetical Richmond Kickers and DC United squad that had been around since the Civil War would be about pride and power, not just points. Looking at the US-Mexico rivalry on the national team level, we can see a closer representation of what a derby game could be. But even there people fall on both sides. There are Mexican-Americans who cheer on both teams when they are not playing each other. That is not the case in a big derby.
Derbies are further grown by trying to be the best team in an individual city. The only city in America that has more than one MLS team is Los Angeles with two. The only states with more than one are California (three) and Texas (two). But in California, Chivas USA is an afterthought and in Texas the sprawling nature of where the teams are located further differentiates our rivalries from Europe’s Derbies. In London, the biggest city in England, there are 14 teams in the top four leagues of the English Football Pyramid (six of which are in the Premier League). You cannot walk in London without bumping into someone who supports a different team. That, in itself, further builds the derby. Meanwhile, in the Greater New York City area, America’s largest metropolitan area and has a population that is more than three time bigger than London’s population, there are only eight teams in the top four tiers of the American Soccer Pyramid (only one in Major League Soccer). Without promotion and relegation (don’t get me started on that) the teams in the Greater New York area never play each other in meaningful competitions outside of maybe a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup match.
There is no derby match between the New York Red Bulls and FC New York, though it was spoken about prior to FCNY joining the USL. The defunct New York Cosmos never had a run in with the Long Island Rough Riders to determine which team really represented New York City (sort of like Manchester United and City do, with City being in Manchester and United not truly being in Manchester proper).
Oddly, in Pennsylvania, there is somewhat of a rivalry brewing between MLS’s Philadelphia Union and USL PRO’s Harrisburg City Islanders. This rivalry is made more fascinating not just by the close proximity of Harrisburg and Philadelphia, nor by the juxtaposition of the capital and the biggest city; but also by the fact that they are in the first and third divisions of the domestic soccer pyramid and are affiliated clubs.
In NASL, the Atlanta Silverbacks and Carolina Railhawks have also, relatively quickly, began to build up a budding enmity. The last game between the two at Silverback Park had 6,000 people in attendance – this despite the fact that Silverback Park only holds 5,000 people. The game before that ended in a brawl between players. Nevertheless, these are still American rivalries and, perhaps luckily, will never grow into true derby status.
This is not to say that the European derby games are better than the North American equivalents. There are very few actual firms in the American sport. Due to that, the American media doesn’t get to play up much of the hooliganism angle that they often use to belittle soccer and their fans as boorish and stupid; this despite gridiron fans and baseball fans doing the same thing from much less volatile rivalries than the ones existing in the rest of the world.
Selling the games as derby games and a day filled with them as “Derby Day” works as far as marketing, and “Derby Day” has some nice consonance to it – even if it is only half true. If you are looking for a true derby game, I suggest looking in Europe, but if you are looking for a good old American sporting rivalry (a la Cubs-White Sox, Celtics-Lakers, Cowboys-Giants), there are some in MLS that do come close.
1. Portland Timbers FC – Seattle Sounders FC – No surprises here. These two teams have been playing for 36 years. There is animosity between the cities, and they perhaps have the best two fan bases in the league to only build upon this feeling. Vancouver can also be considered derby rivals for the complete Cascadian trio.
2. New England Revolution – Chicago Fire – Recent mediocrity has marred this rivalry, but it should be one of the most storied rivalries in MLS, bred through playoff success and failures. Chicago joined MLS in ’98 and have met up with New England eight times in the playoffs, three of those times in the Eastern Conference finals.
3. New York Red Bulls – DC United – They have played multiple times every year, and DC’s success compared with New York’s has bred a mutual contempt for these two closely located teams.
4. Toronto FC – Montreal Impact – This is a political rivalry. Over time this one could grow to overtake all of the others.
5. FC Dallas – Houston Dynamo – Bred through closeness, and then ironically taken apart by MLS who switched Houston to the Eastern Conference, these are two cities that historically do not get along.
6. Colorado Rapids – Real Salt Lake – A gritty regional rivalry grown not just through geography but past on-field flair-ups and player trades.
That said, 17 years into the leagues existence, we are not old enough to get actual derbies and derby days. We have sprung up several rivalries. Those rivalries are helping to grow the game, without allowing people to come and create hooligan story lines. Are many of these rivalries fostered artificially? Maybe, after all I don’t think Columbus and Toronto think about each other at all during the year, even during the Trillium Cup.
MLS is embracing its rivalries. It is time to embrace the word “rival” as well instead of trying to poseurishly sound European by calling it a derby when the games are not.