There's a wide range of authenticity to MLS's many rivalry matchups, writes Alexander Abnos in his weekly Power Rankings.
For over 20 seasons now, we’ve learned that Major League Soccer has no problem trying to conjure improvements out of thin air. At the start of the league, that desire manifested itself in the form of regular-season shootouts (to get rid of those unsatisfying draws), clocks that count down (so everyone knows where in the game it is), and bright, garish jerseys (to...appeal to the kids, I guess?).
It wasn’t all bad. The league also added designated players, raised the salary cap, and placed expansion teams in soccer hotbeds. These were all instant improvements. But then again, all were things that could be improved, instantly.
Now in its third year, MLS’s “Rivalry Week” is yet another manifestation of that same desire for instant improvement. 2016’s edition, though, proved once again that rivalries are not something one can force. They require years of history between two teams, usually combined with success for at least one of them, and always with a fair amount of drama between them. They do not require their own week. And they certainly don’t require any one authority speaking from on high and dubbing it a rivalry in the first place.
“Everybody’s talking about rivalries this week. I got asked if it’s a rivalry,” Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin told reporters, referring to his team’s matchup with D.C. United. The teams are located only 140 miles apart, but share precious little notable history together. Philly midfielder Chris Pontius has played for both teams. So has Fred. That’s about it.
“If you have to ask if it’s a rivalry, it’s not a rivalry,” Curtin said.
The game itself certainly didn’t play out like one. Often, it looked like neither D.C. nor Philadelphia had any strong desire to win a snoozer of a game (though Philadelphia eventually did). The other games the league opted to showcase this week drew the distinction between rivalries created and genuine.
The Hudson River Derby displayed the biggest chasm between marketing hype and on-field reality.
Yes, the division between NYCFC and New York Red Bulls supporters is very real, and touches on some uniquely American fault lines. That alone makes this an interesting matchup. But if it’s a rivalry, it’s one that completely lacks the most important component: Competition between the teams. The Red Bulls’ 7-0 victory was out of place only in terms of score, as the team has done nothing but dominate NYCFC since the latter’s entry into the league.
Meanwhile in Toronto, Columbus Crew visited BMO Field for a matchup that was once so hotly contested that they dedicated a cup–The Trillium Cup–to it. However, those feelings have clearly fizzled. After a 0-0 draw that was well-played but not bad-tempered, neither team’s official website nor the league’s made mention of the Trillium Cup in postgame coverage.
If there’s a complete opposite to the Columbus-Toronto rivalry, it was on display as Real Salt Lake visited Sporting Kansas City. There’s no hastily-created cup at stake, but ever since the Sporting KC’s victory in MLS Cup 2013 the teams have been at each other’s throats in dramatic, entertaining contests. That was the case once again as physical play dominated in Real Salt Lake’s 3-1 win. Eventually, both of these teams will lose many of the characters that made the matchup pop, and the rivalry will fade. And you know what? That’s OK. Rivalries don’t have to be permanent.
Sunday’s formidable 1-2 Cascadia Cup-Calfornia Clasico punch of Portland vs. Vancouver and LA Galaxy vs. San Jose kept Rivalry Week from being a complete misnomer, but three seasons after the concept was introduced to MLS it still feels forced. There simply aren’t enough consistently-entertaining rivalries to sustain it. Considering the youth of the league, that’s entirely acceptable.
Offensive player of the week: Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York Red Bulls
Sure, he was doing it against a porous NYCFC defense, but two goals (including a bicycle kick) and an assist is nothing to sneeze at, especially with as much as Wright-Phillips had been struggling in the early season. Really, though, this award should go to the entire Red Bulls team, who had five goal scorers and four assist providers involved in its seven goals against NYCFC. The Red Bulls tied the MLS record for largest margin of victory with a 7-0 win.
Defensive player of the week: Marc Burch, Colorado Rapids
Burch played a huge role on both sides of the ball for the Rapids in the team’s 1-0 win at Seattle Sounders. Under pressure the whole game, Burch made a variety of key interceptions and came up huge with a goal-line block that preserved the win for Colorado. As if that wasn’t enough, he also assisted on his team’s only goal, delivering the corner kick that Axel Sjoberg buried just before halftime.