As Rivalry Week takes center stage in MLS this week, one notable aspect is the varied states that the various matchups find themselves in.
There is the gnarled oak that is the Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders matchup, a derby that including its NASL set-tos dates back to 1975. There is the young offshoot that is the Hudson River Derby between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC. Then there is the mere sapling that is El Trafico, though given the first two epic matches, the rivalry between the LA Galaxy and LAFC is growing as if it had consumed a few boxes of Miracle-Gro.
Of course, many of MLS’ rivalries lack the history and continuity that exist in other countries. The roots don’t run as deep. MLS 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 for shinier, newer versions.
Yet for some of the league’s most notable imports, the new rivalries have been embraced, even as they acknowledge that there is still room for them to grow.
That process is accelerated when there is 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 some of the world’s biggest derbies, including El Clasico of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
“The rivalry is good for soccer here, but for me, it’s one game,” he told ESPN FC via telephone. “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. It’s the same three points we played before against Philadelphia. We need to be focused.
“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.”
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 of 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.”
El Trafico is still taking its first steps, and 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 ever 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.”