By Andrew Villegas
Soccer fans, heave a collective sigh of relief – no pun intended. So much theater, so much wrestling, so much on the line, so much falling over coupled with ankle grabbing and head embracing — the four Clásicos are finally over. Now back to football.
Is there so much on the line (millions of dollars aside) when Real Madrid and Barcelona meet that the players have to forsake playing the game for a bout (or four consecutive rounds) of shadowboxing? Do we even have anything close in MLS?
Predictably, there’s a significant difference between El Clásico and when teams like, say, FC Dallas and Houston meet. For supporters, for the teams themselves and even for casual fans, the derbies here carry much less weight here than in other countries; MLS rivalries are at most 15 years old. (Anyone even remember the California “Clásico” between the L.A. Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes?) And it’s hard to compete when the best derbies overseas are more than 100 years old. Even our southern neighbors have tons more history: América and Chivas de Guadalajara have been doing battle since 1943.
Still, every league needs derbies. Going back to some of the most heated rivalries in football, derbies have fallen between places with stark regional, economic, cultural and religious divisions and differences. Or it could be that the two sides just like different beer. Still, derbies, real or invented are an important part of soccer. Rivalries can be viewed as a microcosm for the things that make us different from others, even if the other lives just across a river or a mountain range or if they share a stadium with us.
If MLS can get it right, its derbies can grow the game, but it should also be careful. If we’ve seen anything, it’s that youth, the very demographic MLS wants desperately to grow the game with, hates to be sold to. Manufactured rivalry is the biggest culprit, and at worst, they’re ignored or ridiculed — Toronto and Columbus play for a cup each year, united/divided in their locality’s official flower choice, the Trillium. But really, most are viewed with a collective shrug.
If MLS lets derbies flourish organically, only then will real derbies – let’s face it, ones with real hatred – grow. Look at the “Rocky Mountain Cup” rivalry between Real Salt Lake (Fake Salt Lake to Rapids fans) and the Colorado Rapids (the Crapids to RSL fans). You won’t find a set of fans with more organic hatred in their bones for each other. Separated by a huge mountain range, which both sides feel sole idealistic ownership of, the teams reside on a relative island in the middle of the country, insulated from other clubs. The sides’ recent championships have only fueled their hatred for each other. There are other rivalries worth watching too (D.C. United-New York Red Bulls, the Galaxy-Chivas USA) and others with great promise (the Cascadia Cup among the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps, as well as a potential NY Cosmos-NYRB rivalry).
But there’s always the problem with saturation – the reason teams should really only have one true rivalry. We’ve already established that we, as Americans, have terribly short attention spans. Imagine if every other game – heck, even one in every 10 games – were touted as a rivalry game, we’d get fatigued by all that “meaningful” football. Sure we’d shake with delight ahead of the opening whistle, but teams need “gimme” games that are either sure-to-be wins or losses to prime the pump for the real entrée, the derby. Easy wins or big losses imbue derby games with meaning.
Eventually, every MLS team will need a derby – and probably only one – in order to keep the league successful. Derby games bring more money at the gate, more interest from the media, and bring out the best (or if you’re Barcelona or Real Madrid, worst) in players. But these derbies have to begin in a “real” way, then over the years, fans can mold them to what they want them to be, and the folklore that comes with tradition will begin. The problem with the MLS rivalries right now is that everyone still remembers 15 years ago – everyone remembers what Alexi Lalas’ hair and beard looked like back in the day.
It won’t take 100 years, but it might take teaching your kid about the reasons we hate the other team before rivalries really take root.
Plus, in a couple generations, when too old to kick a ball around, we can look back and romanticize a version of events that are much more exciting than the originals. And then the only thing we’ll have to complain about is all the theatrics. “What has become of our sport?” we’ll say. Hasten the day.