Building a Rivalry: What Next for MLS?

April 2001. Alf-Inge Håland of Manchester City sprints to clear a misplaced pass. He doesn’t see Manchester United’s Roy Keane hurtling towards him, boot outstretched. The United midfielder’s studs spear into Håland’s knee, and the City player crumples. The players in blue and red gather as referee David Ellerey brandishes a red card, and Keane storms towards the showers. Håland would never again play a full match. The following year, in his autobiography, Keane would admit that the tackle was premeditated.

Such stories are not uncommon in football. There are few times that European, South American, or Asian cities feel more electric than on the day of a cross-town derby. Fans shout insults and unfurl abusive banners; players tackle harder and celebrate louder. On-field results and off-field drama intertwine over the years.

As the United States’ Major League Soccer continues to target the upper echelons of world soccer, “real” derbies remain elusive. Quality of play is rising as is exposure, but MLS’s rivalries lack the punch of a Clasico. In August, New York City FC and New York Red Bulls fans were mocked for “impersonating” hooliganism before the Red Bulls’ 2-0 victory. Many other “rivalries”  touted by MLS are cordial and ahistoric.

A potent rivalry must stew for years; doubly so for soccer, a famously political sport. Many of football’s most divisive rivalries grew out of classist, social, or religious differences: the Derby della Madonnina between A.C. Milan and Internazionale pits the bourgeoisie against the working class, the Intercontinental Derby’s European Istanbul and Galatasary versus Asian Istanbul and Fenerbahce. Some rivalries feature all three: Scotland’s Old Firm sees the traditionally Scottish, Protestant, conservative Rangers play against the Scot-Irish, Catholic, Socialist-leaning Celtic. Most derbies have since transcended politics, but the residue remains.

MLS lacks the politicization of its overseas counterparts. The league was formed in the 1990s, as the United States aimed to overcome its differences. Other American sports lack political oomph as well. Some intense rivalries come to mind – Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens or New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, and North Carolina and Duke universities – but none match the explosiveness of football derbies. Whether due to Americans’ preference for other sports, soccer’s late arrival on the United States scene, or the size and parity of the league, Major League Soccer matches lack a certain punch.

Rivalry is best in close quarters; there is no sweeter feeling that defeating an opponent who could have flown your flag. Many of the world’s greatest rivalries divide one city, usually the capital. Fenerbahce and Galatasaray lie 16 miles apart in Istanbul; Boca Juniors and River Plate 10 miles in Buenos Aires; A.C. Milan and Internazionale share a stadium in Milan, as do Roma and Lazio in Rome. Though in separate cities, Ajax and Feyenoord are only 52 miles apart. Close stadiums means throngs of away supporters on derby days, creating a buzz in the stadium.

Same-city battles are rare in MLS; after the folding of Chivas USA, only New York City hosts two MLS franchises. In densely-populated European countries, supporters can choose from many nearby clubs, but most MLS fans only have one club that they could support. This means stadiums full of home fans, and little room for the supporter interaction that is pivotal to derbies.

Glasgow residents say that “nobody chooses Rangers or Celtic. Blood decides.” Historic derbies like the Old Firm have a sense of inevitability about them; the rivalry always has been, and it always will be. However, a fire needs fuel. Some “eternal” rivalries are sparked by great individuals: Inter’s Sandro Mazzola and Milan’s Gianni Rivera scored hat tricks for fun in the 60s, and Barcelona versus Real Madrid has become a proxy war for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

There are great team battles: Inter’s Dutchmen versus Milan’s Germans in the 1980s, or 1970s Die Klassiker matches between the “two best teams in the world,” Feyenoord and Ajax.

There are great matches, like manager Graeme Sounesse planting Galatasaray’s flag in the center of Fenerbahce’s stadium after winning the Turkish Cup. Some transcend seasons; many rivalries also are laundry lists of who’s who in world football.

Off the field, competition is equally heated. Supporters sing vitriolic songs; backroom staffs try to outmaneuver the other club in the transfer market. Feyenoord fans will never forgive Ajax for convincing new Feyenoord signing Froylan Ledzema to sign for Ajax instead – in the Rotterdam airport. After winning the Coppa Italia in 2013, Lazio fans held a mock funeral for the slaying of Roma. Red Bulls fans took a stab at derby banter, brandishing a tifo saying “WE MAY BE JERSEY BOYS, BUT YOU’RE AWFUL ALL FOUR SEASONS.”

The violence, however childish, between NYCFC and Red Bulls fans is a reminder of the other face of derbies: the prejudice, hooliganism, and violence that often accompanies such encounters. The more televised of these rivalries – Manchester United versus Liverpool or Barcelona versus Real Madrid – tend to remain civilized, but almost every major derby has a history of fan violence and, in most cases, tragic deaths.

The Derby della Madonnina Champions League match in 2004/05 was stopped due to flares hitting the Milan goalkeeper Dida after a controversially disallowed goal. The Derby della Capitale and Intercontinental Derby have both had matches halted. The Old Firm boasts the “worst pitch invasion of all time,” when Celtic and Rangers fans both climbed a ten-foot fence to clash on the pitch after the 1980 Scottish Cup Final. Away fans were banned at Holland’s Die Klassiker for five years following the death of an Ajax supporter. Argentina no longer allows away fans at all.

These tragic events have led to increased security, but most derby matches still enforce strict rules. Identification is required two or three times, fans of each club are segregated by police, and of course no alcohol is allowed or sold inside the stadium. Most of these matches are only played during the day. Passion for football does not come cheaply.

rivalries2Despite the horrors of football rivalries, in some ways they are the lifeblood of soccer, the epitome of fandom. Major League Soccer sees the cultivation of rivalries as a crucial step in the development of the league; this year marks the league’s first Rivalry Week. In the past, MLS teams have played college football-esque “Rivalry Cups,” codified regular-season series meant to add meaning to league games. Recognizing that rivalries take years to cultivate, MLS attempts to encourage sparks to fly. In some cases, it is working; New Yorkers flocked to Twitter to take sides in the “Hudson River Derby” before New York Red Bulls and NYCFC had ever faced off.

Of course, not every league needs a Superclasico, and certainly not more than one. In most of these derbies, the two teams command majorities of the fan base. They take place between nearby teams that succeed again and again and again, impossible in a league as diverse and balanced as MLS. What may be more desirable is secondary rivalries, ones that give every team someone to root against.

The Premier League has many: the Manchester Derby between United and City, the Merseyside battle between Liverpool and Everton, the Tyne-Wear Derby between Sunderland and Newcastle, and the perennial feuds between the many London clubs. Here, violence generally remains on the field. Some “Rivalry Cups,” with the right mix of on-field history and off-the-field tension, may become Merseyside-esque. Some have already taken the first steps.

Major League Soccer was never really meant for El Clasicos, just as no other American sport has one great rivalry. The league is missing key ingredients: it’s too balanced, too dispersed, and most of all, too young. However, there are signs of life between some of MLS’s newer teams.

Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have butted heads since their North American Soccer League days in 1975; they boast two of the league’s most earnest fan bases, compete on the field, and are a doable three-hour drive apart on I-5. Although L’Impact de Montreal are new to the league, their burgeoning feud with Toronto FC shows promise: two cities representing the English and French-speaking parts of Canada, already possessing a historic hockey blood feud, with increasingly passionate fan bases and a not-impossible five-hour separation.

Recently in focus have been New York City FC and New York Red Bulls. After the sandwich-board-swinging, British-accent-faking debacle before last week’s match, fans of both teams were hammered for their “pretend” rivalry. For now, the critics are right. With time to develop, though, the Hudson River derby could become the defining MLS battle. New York City is a seasoned two-sport city, and although the Yankees and Mets are cordial enough, there is no love lost between cross-river rivals New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils of the NHL. The cultural differences are there: new, expensive, city-dwelling NYCFC versus historic, economic, suburban Red Bulls.

Before the two teams had stepped on the pitch, fans hurled invective on Twitter, and although Red Bulls’ “retirement home” tifo needs some work, animosity is brewing in the Big Apple. On the field, there were moments of quality – Felipe’s smart near-post finish – and insanity – Red Bulls’ Damien Perrinelle was suspended two games for swinging at NYCFC’s Jefferson Mena. After the game, New York Red Bulls fans left the stadium crowing with delight, having swept the season series. For the derby to reach the next level, NYCFC will have to improve.

But if they do, in a league focused on promoting its rivalries, American sports fans should be excited. MLS certainly will be: “rivalries bring us this massive energy and urgency and atmosphere to the table,” the MLS’s chief marketing officer said. All of the ingredients are there on the banks of the Hudson River: proximity, culture, hatred. Now all they need is a bit of history, and someone to safely stir the pot.

Henry Trotter’s DC United technically rival Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, and Red Bulls (there’s a song about it, I swear), but it’s really just a reason to yell louder. For more on MLS rivalries, Premier League banter, and the occasional informed thought, you can find him @henryisfutbol.