How MLS Rivalry Week compares with Europe's biggest derbies
When it comes to to rivalries, Major League Soccer is at a major disadvantage in comparison to its counterparts in Europe and South America. With a few exceptions, most clubs in the North American league are drawing upon no more than 22 years’ worth of animosity to define their most despised adversaries, while those in the sport’s traditional hotbeds can call on a century or more.
Some do have another decade or two of bad blood to heat up their meetings, and those with even less history are still finding ways to amp up the antipathy.
There is the gnarled oak that is the Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders match-up, a rivalry that dates back to 1975 if you include its matches in NASL. The young offshoot that is the Hudson River Derby has emerged between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC. The mere sapling that is El Trafico, the rivalry between the LA Galaxy and LAFC, is growing as if it had consumed a few boxes of Miracle-Gro, if the first two epic matches are anything to go by.
Of course, the roots in MLS don’t run as deep as they do elsewhere. The league has even seen fit to cannibalize a few of its better rivalries, with matchups such as the Red Bulls and D.C. United or the California Clasico between the Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes shunted aside in favor of promoting sexier pairings in New York and Los Angeles.
Yet for some of the league’s most notable imported players, the new rivalries have been embraced, even as its stars acknowledge that there is still room for them to grow.
That growth process is being accelerated by the advent of Rivalry Week, the league’s annual promotion the hostility that exists between its clubs. It’s on this sort of stage that players can make a name for themselves.
Seattle Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro knows as well as anyone how an epic derby performance can change a career. He remembers scoring as a 20-year-old for his beloved Nacional against bitter rivals Penarol in a 3-0 victory back in Uruguay. Six years later, he scored the lone goal for Argentine side Boca Juniors to win 1-0 at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental.
“There were no fans for Boca, only River, and after the goal the entire stadium was silent,” Lodeiro told ESPN FC with the help of a translator.
Lodeiro notes that Saturday’s match at Providence Park against the Timbers will be “like any Clasico, it’s very difficult.” Yet there are differences to what he has experienced elsewhere.
“In South America, the Clasicos, it’s more than just the game,” he said. “It continues with your life outside of the field, with your family, and with the people every day. There’s a lot of things in play than just the game in South America. Here there is a lot of passion, a lot of rivalry, but it’s only on the field.”
Even on the field, the differences can be stark. Galaxy defender Ashley Cole recalled that the craziest derby he ever took part in came in November 2001, when he was playing for Arsenal against Tottenham Hotspur. The match, which ended in a 1-1 draw, marked the first time that Sol Campbell played at White Hart Lane for the Gunners after moving the previous summer from their bitter London rivals Spurs, where he had spent nine seasons.
“Already the hatred was there, and it was always an amazing atmosphere at White Hart Lane,” said Cole. “[Campbell] going back there for the first time, it was amazing, but it was scary in a bad way. Poor Sol Campbell got abused. It was electric, you had goose bumps, the hair was standing up on my arms and my legs. It was scary at times, but what a game to play in.”
Of course, El Trafico can’t rely on the 109-year history of the North London Derby, but Cole will be among those taking part in Friday’s edition at StubHub Center (10:30 ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes). With LAFC still in the midst of its debut season, the match will be just the third meeting between the intra-city rivals. But thanks in part to the jaw-dropping performances of Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and goals galore on both sides, the matches have been filled to the brim with drama.
Cole admits he’s been impressed at how quickly the intensity between the two teams has been ratcheted up.
“For LAFC to have the big fan base and the passion, they have surprised me,” he said. “And yeah, when they came here the first time the atmosphere was electric. Without having any [previous] incidents, the rivalry is still big.”
All that’s needed is more time to add memories, controversy and generally feed the rivalry beast.
“A few years down the line, there’s going to be more reason to dislike each other,” said Cole. “We’re so close to them, but we need some incidents to spice it up even more, to make it better. Hopefully in years to come this game can become that.”
Another of the league’s young derbies has precisely that spice, and the added element of more on the line than mere bragging rights.
That’s the case with Wednesday’s Hudson River Derby at Yankee Stadium. Both teams are in contention for the Supporters’ Shield, with NYCFC sitting in third place in the overall standings, one point behind the Red Bulls, as both teams try to chase down first-place Atlanta United.
So, even as important as a victory is, it is that trophy that is on the mind of NYCFC captain David Villa, who has experienced arguably some the world’s biggest rivalries, including El Clasico of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The most difficult derby that you play is Barcelona and Real Madrid,” he told ESPN FC via telephone. “To be on the roster of one of those teams is really difficult for any player, but the other derbies I played were very intense as well.
“The rivalry is good for soccer here, but for me it’s one game. I know that for the fans, for everyone in the club and around the team it’s really good, and it’s a different game. But finally for us it’s against one of our big rivals, not only for the city but for the [Supporters’ Shield] as well and we need to beat them in this way.
“My focus when I started in the league wasn’t to beat the New York Red Bulls. It’s to beat the Red Bulls, to beat Philadelphia, Atlanta, everyone playing in the league because we want to take the silverware, and to take the silverware you need to beat everyone.”
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