MLS Countdown: Tasty menu of rivalry games is served up

One of the shrewder competitive practices instilled by MLS has also produced marketing opportunities the league enthusiastically promotes.

Case in point is "Rivalry Week," sponsored by Heineken, during which a package of the league’s most intense matchups are rolled out on national television. On Friday, the series kicks off when Philadelphia hosts D.C. United on UniMas; on Saturday and Sunday the action is spread across the country.

On Saturday, Yankee Stadium will host and the Fox network will air the Hudson River Derby between NYCFC and the Red Bulls. A Sunday doubleheader features Portland-Vancouver on ESPN and Galaxy-San Jose on Fox Sports 1. These may be the marquee games of the weekend, and thus are televised nationally, but a Cascadia Cup clash and California Clasico aren’t the only matchups of teams with history and tradition and hard feelings.

For the first time the new and expanded BMO Field stages a Toronto FC-Columbus edition of the Trillium Cup (which is named for a flower native to both localities), and though the robust relationship between 2013 MLS Cup finalists Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake lacks an official title, the level of emotion can be gleaned by those comments from combustible RSL midfielder and captain Kyle Beckerman:

“That's petty stuff,” Beckerman said to the Salt Lake Tribune. “Come say it to us, you know? Talk to us. Who are they talking to? I don't know. We're fine. We have no problem with them.

“I love [Matt] Besler, [Graham] Zusi, Chance [Myers] — these guys are good people. Tim Melia was here, so we actually have a lot of friends over there, so we don't worry about one bozo.”

The "bozo" in question is midfielder Benny Feilhaber, whose last year commented that RSL was the league rival he most despised. Some of the ill feeling stems from that hard-fought, bitterly cold 2013 final that required overtime and 20 penalty kicks to resolve, but much of it is simply natural dislike from playing so many games over time. Eventually, inevitably, there will be enough emotional incidents and perceived injustices to rile up both sides.

By expanding into Seattle seven years ago, MLS took its first step into the Cascadia region, which in 2011 took full shape when Vancouver and Portland joined the league. Both teams are perhaps more disdainful of the Sounders, but as defending champions, the Timbers must rise up in just about every game to match the mentality of their opponents, and in this case the opponent, Vancouver, has won its last three games to open up an eight-point gap in the standings over the Timbers -- and seven over the Sounders.

The entry of New York City FC last year provided the Red Bulls with a neighbor as well as a nemesis, though NYCFC has yet to earn so much as a point in their three head-to-head meetings.

“Whenever you beat NYCFC, it means a little bit more than a normal game,” said Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty on the Men in Blazers podcast. “I’ll never forget the feeling after beating them at Yankee Stadium. There were thousands of our fans in the nosebleed section and you could see them going nuts. I kind of just wanted to say on the field for an hour after the game was over and take it in and enjoy the moment.”

As for the tone and context of his pregame speech, he said, “I’d kind look in their eyes, maybe grab a guy’s shirt and say, “Leave it all out there. We fight for each other, we kick their [butt] all over the field, we don’t worry about the ref, we don’t worry about the crowd, we don’t worry about anything.

“We go out there, we get three points, we walk off the field and say thank you very much.’ And that’s it.”

For the Saturday showdown, NYCFC is in slightly better form, with three wins and two ties in its last five games. The Red Bulls rebounded from a 2-0 loss at D.C. United last week to beat the feeble Fire, 1-0, on Wednesday.

After the Cascadia slots were filled, Montreal came aboard in 2012 to provide a soccer component to bitter track records against Toronto in the NHL and CFL. There’s also a healthy cross-Canada friction between both cities and Vancouver in several sports. Last weekend, Vancouver handed TFC its first loss at the new BMO in a wild 4-3 barnburner.

In its next round of expansion MLS will add a new rival for the Galaxy, Los Angeles Football Club, to atone for the Chivas USA fiasco as well as Miami (maybe) to trigger a Florida turf war with Orlando City. For a southern foe, fellow expansion entrant Atlanta snugly fits the bill. Minnesota United won’t have any in-state rivals, but Chicago and a few other MLS cities aren’t that far away.

A spirited yet irresolvable topic resurfaces every time a rivalry week crops up. Which matchup is the best? Since there will never be a national consensus, sketching out a few highlights of one such pairing serves to illustrate why the fans, and the league, regard them so highly.

The Galaxy and San Jose started out with the league in 1996, but the California Clasico took a hiatus when the Quakes left San Jose for Houston after the 2005 season. That move provided nice, friendly Texas shootouts between FC Dallas and the Dynamo, and the Northern California void was filled when Quakes 2.0 started up in 2008.

Thanks to a crossover playoff format, the Galaxy and Quakes met in Columbus to contest the 2001 MLS Cup final, and a Dwayne DeRosario goal in overtime earned San Jose its first title. Two years later, future Galaxian Landon Donovan led an incredible Quakes rally from a 4-0 aggregate deficit that ended 5-4 to San Jose. The Quakes haven’t won at StubHub Center since a playoff victory in 2012, but in the second leg the Galaxy reversed that loss and went on to win a second consecutive crown.

“When San Jose comes here, we know that our fans get up for it and how passionate they are for this game,” said Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza to LA Galaxy Insider. “We know how crazy the games can be, and we make sure to come prepared. When you play a rival, it's usually a team you really hate and I really hate San Jose.”

The league hasn’t always handled its rivalries competently. Fans, players, and journalists believe some matchups are contrived, and MLS took a lot of heat a few years ago when it trademarked the Cascadia Cup as its own.

No such stain taints the showdowns of northern and southern California.

“In this league, you see a lot of pretend rivalries and ones that are made up, but to my knowledge, this one developed through games, actual fights, and play on the field,” Galaxy forward Mike Magee told LA Galaxy Insider. “It wasn’t made up by media people or anything like that. It’s got the real feel of a rivalry.”


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