NEW YORK — One of the principles of sports has always been that meaning is conferred, not created. By point of example: It is the mutual loathing, or dislike, or even polite dismissal of various fan groups that tend to create the best sports rivalries.
Narrow it down from “sports” to “soccer,” and the direct-line correlation becomes even clearer. Just Google “soccer tribalism” and you’ll get nearly 300,000 hits, the first of which is a piece from CNN pondering whether “a Cosmos comeback” could spark soccer tribalism here in North America.
The author had obviously never been to The Home Depot Center on the day of the LA Superclasico. Or to the Pacific Northwest during a Cascadia Cup match. If he had, he would’ve known that soccer tribalism is here already. And it’s here to stay.
Over the course of the past decade, various rivalries, some expected, some not, have pushed MLS slowly away from the “Big 4” professional sports model, where the regular season is, frankly, watered down, and toward the NCAA football model, where it’s an annual ritual to circle rivalry games on the calendar months ahead of time.
With that in mind, here are five feuds I’m greatly looking forward to come March:
The I-95 Corridor: The league’s oldest rivalry is the one between D.C. United and New York (first MetroStars, now Red Bulls), which began before a ball had ever been kicked in MLS. It started, as seemingly all things do these days, with an internet war of words and has continued in earnest through 15 years.
The addition of Philadelphia Union to the Atlantic Coast just added to the volatile concoction, particularly, since so many Philly fans are ex-Screaming Eagles. While this has led to a level of fraternal good-fellowship between D.C. and Philly groups, the Sons of Ben maintain United’s animosity toward everything NY-related.
2011, with the Union and United having already made major offseason acquisitions and New York trying to build on their conference title, looks to be even better.
The Rocky Mountain Cup: The rivalry between the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake doesn’t get much publicity on the coasts, but it should. The Rocky Mountain Cup, as it was anointed by fan groups of the two teams, has simply been a bloodbath the past three seasons. Each year, Colorado seem poised to take it back (they won the first two versions in 2005 and 06), but RSL cruelly slam them on some improbable play and defend their title.
Throw in the fact that they’re the last two MLS Cup champions, and that both team’s rosters have been together long enough to get to know—and dislike—the other, and the coming year’s Rocky Mountain Cup promises 180 minutes of pure entertainment.
As of this moment, this is the best rivalry in the league.
The Battle for Canada: The story of Canadian soccer since 2000’s Gold Cup victory has been one of missed chances. Fans across the country are hoping that comes to an end in 2011, and that the budding rivalry between Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC is the catalyst for it.
At stake are not just points in the league standings, but the love of a nation. Because whichever of these two clubs is more successful at turning out Canadian stars will capture the hearts of English-speaking Canada.
The California Classico: If you’re a non-Galaxy US soccer fan, Landon Donovan is a hero for whom you clap politely when he’s announced in the starting lineup, then boo for 90 minutes.
If you’re a San Jose Earthquakes fan, he’s the guy you burn in effigy just before gametime, “The Goal” be damned.
Once upon a time Donovan led the Quakes in what was, without question, the league’s best rivalry. San Jose beat LA 2-1 in MLS Cup 2001. LA got revenge the next year, clinching the Supporters Shield with a 1-0 win at San Jose.
Then came the 2003 playoffs. LA won the first leg 2-0, then took a 2-0 lead inside 20 minutes of the second leg. With the Quakes down 4-0 on aggregate, Donovan led what is still the most impossible comeback — and most dramatic game — in league history, as the Quakes netted four times in regulation then added a fifth in injury time for a shocking 5-4 aggregate victory.
Donovan left San Jose for LA a year later, and Quakes fans have never forgiven him.
Thanks to Chris Wondolowski & Co., there’s great hope in the Bay Area in 2011—and a strong desire to knock their one-time hero off on the way.
The Cascadia Cup: This rivalry deserves a column in and of itself, but I’ll keep it short.
Basically, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC have been doing this battle for decades. And they’re going to escalate things when the latter two join MLS in 2011. Hell, before they’ve even fired a ball at an MLS goal, the Timbers and ‘Caps have already fired shots across Seattle’s bow—and at each other for good measure.
Tifo, billboards, two-footed tackles—this one has it all.
If you’re a fan in the Pacific Northwest, it’s going to be as intense as any rivalry in the world. If you’re a fan outside the region, it’s going to fun to watch.
So enjoy it. Enjoy them all. Tribalism may be a dirty word in some ways, but it’s the lifeblood of this sport: Do your part and hate thy neighbor.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.