Vancouver Whitecaps’ Kendall Waston is running down the flank at Providence Park, chasing Portland Timbers’ Dairon Asprilla. Waston goes in for a tackle and takes Asprilla down, and referee Ted Unkel promptly hands the Vancouver player a red card, not before Asprilla gets in Waston’s face. Rivalry at its best, right? Even better when you consider the final whistle went before Waston went in for the tackle. Waston said he did not hear it.
The match between the Whitecaps and the Timbers was one of four nationally broadcast matches for MLS’ Rivalry Week, and a prime example of what rivalry means in sport. When the fixture list comes out months before the season starts, supporters look for the days when they play their rivals. MLS’ national broadcast partners do the same thing; this weekend alone, four matches made it to national television instead of the usual three.
Broadcasters are not wrong to focus on these matchups. Matches between rivals tend to eventful ones. That entertaining bust-up mentioned earlier came after a goal fest between the two, in which Portland triumphed by a scoreline of 4-2.
Broadcasters and league officials looking at TV numbers are not the only ones who benefit. As mentioned in yesterday’s accompanying piece, they raise stadium attendance. If you’re a purist like me and believe the fans are the most important part of sport, the greatest thing a rivalry can do is increase fan engagement. Whether it’s through social media hashtag fun, such as last year’s battle to light up the Empire State Building, or the usual trash-talking tifos, the fans have a lot of fun with a rivalry.
In fact, the Cascadia rivalry, which also includes the Seattle Sounders, is one of MLS’ shining examples of a great rivalry. The three teams obviously share geography and want to dominate their region. Since all three teams have competed in the league in 2011, the average goals per Cascadia Cup match is 4.4, making their matches almost certain to be lively. The teams also have a long history of playing one another; the Cascadia Cup goes as far back as 2004, when all three teams were playing in the USL. In addition, the rivalry is even-matched; since 2011, Seattle and Vancouver have both won twice and Portland won once. Plenty of other rivalries fit the same criteria.
Is Rivalry Manufactured?
As #RivalryWeek kicked into high gear, with a Heineken sponsorship and a soccer ball emoji to go with the hashtag, we saw the monetization of a natural hatred bred between two or three teams. It made some wonder: Is MLS forcing this too much, particularly in the case of the New York Derby? All the two New York teams have in common is a little bit of geography. They do not have history, nor is this an even matchup. As things stand, the Red Bulls have won all four matchups, outscoring their opponents 14-2. The Red Bulls do have DC United, with more history and more competition, after all.
This argument comes from a stance that the increased amount of money in soccer is a bad thing, seen in movements like #AgainstModernFootball. Marketing has itself become a word with a dirty connotation, but while money in the beautiful game may not always be for the sport’s benefit, in the case of Rivalry Week, the money is just a natural product of the nature of rivalries. When athletes land large sponsorship deals, they get them because they have to prove some sporting merit at first. It is always more difficult to market something that just is no good than something that at least has the potential to entertain, or make money.
This argument also discounts any attempt New York City FC could make to establish any rivalry. The team is only in its second season; they clearly do not have the history to back anything up just yet, and no one creates a rivalry just based on being evenly matched. Otherwise, we could call matchups with the Timbers a rivalry based on the fact that the series is 1-1 in history. It is entirely possible to just wait and let NYCFC organically create rivalries, but let’s face it: geography would become a factor whether or not anyone forced it.
Calling the New York Derby one-sided is not wrong at this point in time. However, four games is a very small sample size. As with everything in life, rivalries work in cycles; because the Red Bulls are dominant now does not mean they will always be in charge of the rivalry. This also discounts the fact that there is a genuine animosity between fans of both teams. Also mentioned in yesterday’s piece, there was violence between both sets of fans this weekend and in the past.
This brings up another point: Is rivalry another way to incite violence for made up reasons? Derbies around the world are known for their violence in addition to their tense matches. A rivalry can obviously escalate to harsh and unacceptable reactions between fans, but those fans always make more noise than the ones that peacefully go to and from match. In MLS, for example, those fans seem to be in the minority. One can hope, in a league that has great precedent for punishing players who have used gay slurs and been charged with domestic assault, those in charge can take acts of violence seriously and punish wrongdoers accordingly.
Rivalry as a Uniting Force
Despite the problems a rivalry can bring, its greatest accomplishment is that it creates more intense fan engagement for a few matches a year. Though by definition something that divides, it unites the supporters with the same allegiance. Ask any Red Bulls fan at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon what it was like sitting in enemy territory and celebrating a goal on seven different occasions. Section 208 at Yankee Stadium, for example, had its own fun singing, high-fiving, and hugging.
— Pardeep Cattry (@pcattry) May 21, 2016
A similar question could be posed to the Portland Timbers fans that created their “Destroy Canadian Menace” tifo about their satisfaction afterwards. The making of the tifo is a shared activity that is only bettered with three points against the rival.
— Timbers Army (@timbersarmy) May 22, 2016
Seasons can be measured by a few things: trophies won, final ranking, and how the team did in the derby. If you swept the series, there’s at least one positive to take from the season. If not, there’s at least one negative to improve on for next season. One thing is certain about a rivalry: there’s nothing quite like beating them.