How Some of MLS' Biggest Rivalries Compare To The World's Most Hotly Contested Derbies
Updated: Jun 1
Now, I know what you're going to think. MLS rivalries are nothing like the fiercest rivalries in England. MLS rivalries can only call on 24 years of animosity and hatred, whilst most British rivalries have been around for as long as a century, even longer in some cases. Rivalries such as those involving ourselves and Atlant United have only had a couple of years to fester, but bad blood is bad blood. Something has to start a rivalry, and whilst that may sound like a childish notion of 'he/she started it' it's an accurate commentary. Soccer really is that petulant at times. It is also often used as an avenue to express idealogical, political and religious animosities the world over.
Every rivalry in the sport has one thing in common. Be it Celtic v Rangers or Atlanta v Orlando. Something started it. They did something, we did something. Sometimes it even goes beyond that. Religion (Celtic-Rangers). Politics (England-Scotland). Even war (pretty much every international rivalry). It comes from somewhere. Believe it or not, the same can be said of MLS. Every rivalry started somewhere.
When you think of some of the top rivalries in the English game, some often picture days gone by. English football hooliganism has long been a cancer on the British game. Historically clashes between Manchester United and Liverpool, West Ham and Millwall (I could go on and on) have been fraught with violence. And to a certain extent it still does. And let me be clear, this is not a direction MLS wants to send itself down. And I do not believe it will. The hooliganism culture that has been so omnipresent throughout the years in the UK, is often romanticised in popular culture. Movies like the Football Factory are often accused of glorifying football violence. They almost paint a dangerous narrative of what a 'proper' football rivalry should look like. It's a very narrow minded and dogmatic narrative at that. There are so many layers to rivalries that it would be impossible to unpick them all. That being said, they all started somewhere.
MLS has been, let's be honest, fairly accused of trying to manufacture rivalries. It's good for the brand, it sells tickets. It's even gone as far as creating entire marketing campaigns in an attempt to stir up a bit of animosity. The El Trafico derby is a prime example of this. It's also a prime example of how a genuinely manufactured rivalry can breed a sense of animosity that is very real. The Galaxy had enjoyed dominion over the city of Los Angeles in soccer terms for quite some time. The city's favourable demographics in terms of its large Hispanic population and high population, helps L.A. to stand out as a soccer city. 5 league championships has the Galaxy sat as the league's winningest team. Chivas USA never stood a chance. Then the winds of change arrived, and with it the Los Angeles Football Club. LAFC emerged as the noisy neighbours. They pitched up their digs downtown, and were able to amass a partisan crowd. The club directly flew in the face of their city neighbours. Their brand of expansive soccer, led by the talismanic Carlos Vela led to some real humdingers. The rivalry between Vela and the legendary Zlatan Ibrahimovic added fuel to the fire. 4 games later and we have a genuine rivalry. Again, something started it.
The manufacturing of that particular rivalry by MLS' marketing gurus was that 'something'. Only time will tell if the level of animosity felt between those two sides continues to manifest itself. The early signs are that it certainly will continue to do so. Only time will tell. Time being the operative word, true rivalries stand the test of time, intensifying as the years go by. The English game has been around for well over 150 years, which has lead to the development of some of the most heated rivalries in the sport.
One of the most fiercely contested rivalry games in Britain is the famed Old Firm Derby. A rivalry whose origins can be found in tragedy. When England travelled to play Scotland in 1902 at Ranger's Ibrox, one of the stands collapsed. And 25 people sadly lost their lives. The disaster caused Rangers to sell of their stars to finance the rebuilding of the stadium. And who do you think purchased those players? Celtic. The something occured. Now the rivalry has as much to do with the political situation in Ireland as it has to do with football. The two clubs are by far the most successful in Scotland with 104 league titles between them. Traditionally native Scots and Ulster Scots were Rangers supporters, and protestants. Whilst for Celtic their supporter base was traditionally made up Irish Scots and Catholics. Rangers had an unwritten policy, of not signing Catholic players. Hence the uproar when Graeme Souness signed Catholic Mo Johnston (formerly of Celtic). Whilst a rivalry undoubtedly may be sparked by a particular event, it is the ensuing events that often lead to an exacerbation of the intensity. And so we have found in MLS, particularly between our very own Orlando City and Atlanta United...
That billboard. Another attempt to manufacture an MLS rivalry. I hasten to add, I don't see that as a negative thing necessarily. Rivalries are vital in ensuring the league continues to flourish. Though I think it's fair to say this was as much the brain child of Atlanta's front office as it was MLS'. It was a manufactured and purposeful move. But it started something. We humans are territorial beings. There was very much a feeling of 'how dare they do that in our back yard' for the Orlando supporter base. Atlanta represented the very enemy of what Orlando City as a club represented. Orlando had to earn MLS the hard way, whilst Atlanta just waltzed into an NFL stadium, plonked themselves down with a truckload of cash and said 'we're here'. At least that's how it felt to Orlando City supporters. It was endeavour vs entitlement and blue collar vs silver spoon, very much in sporting terms I hasten to add. Since then Atlanta, as much as it pains me to say it, have been the more successful club. They have a model based on bringing through talented young players, which has proven fruitful for them. And if we are being honest, we're probably a little jealous-which only serves to fan the flames of this fledgling rivalry.
Even during this quarantine period, we have seen MLS attempting to nurture fledgling new rivalries. Expansion side Inter For... Sorry, Miami. Beg your pardon, Inter Miami probably tick the proverbial checklist for an Orlando City rivalry. Geographical proximity. Check. Not a lot of history to speak of. Check. Multi million dollar financiers. Check. Pictures emerged this week of a billboard encouraging Orlando fans to 'wash their hands like they had just touched an Inter Miami CF jersey'. The move was very clearly an attempt to nudge this rivalry in the right direction, following on from the Siegel's visit to Orlando for the All-Star game last summer. There is already a little animosity growing between both sets of supporters. And they've yet to even face each other. Undoubtedly the existing Orlando-Miami rivalry across other sports will more than play it's part. It will be interesting to see how this rivalry plays out on the field.
Some rivalries, particularly those in South America and Europe garner images of destruction and violence. And not without good cause. The 2018 Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate had to be moved to a foreign country, due to crowd violence. There have even been movies depicting rivalries as literal blood baths. The depiction of the rivalry between West Ham United and Millwall in Elijah Wood's Green Street perhaps being the most famous example. Now, let me be clear, this is not something we want to see in MLS. And I do not believe that we will. But despite the lack of blood and gore at MLS rivalry games, the passion and intensity is still there. And this will only continue to grow over time. But it has to be nurtured in the correct way, and not be allowed to escalate to the point of aggresssion or violence. Which is something American sports do fantastically well. You can go to a Baltimore Ravens game in a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and not risk your life. You'll probably get a lot of stick for doing so, and they won't thank you for revelling in victory whilst stood among them. But you can still drink a beer together at the end of the day. That's a beautiful thing, and something we need to maintain. A fine balance between kinship and animosity, that in no way diminishes the rivalry on game day.