Just what makes an MLS derby?

There are matches and then there are derby matches. While the standard game might see smaller attendances and players taking it easy on the pitch, the derby match is always much more tense.

Supporters come out in droves, players are always a little bit more nervy during the first 15 minutes, and chances are there will be one event that will be scrutinized by both teams until the next match. Derby matches are what leagues interesting and give purpose to what can be at times a very boring regular season.

In its twentieth season, Major League Soccer should be at a point where derby matches matter. Average spectators coming into the game should be aware of the circumstances, players should feel the emotion and prepare accordingly. These clubs have had time to make their imprint upon their communities and no derby match should sneak up on soccer supporters in their respective areas.


Yet as the league’s original derby match, the I-95 derby between D.C. United and New York Red Bulls, is set to get underway there seems to be some apathy towards the game and its importance. It speaks to a question that the league and supporters here in the United States have never really been asked: Just what makes a derby match in MLS?

To answer that question it is important to look at just what makes a derby a derby? When one looks at derbies across the world there seem to be three factors that come into play: geography, a specific event that favored one team or the other, and time. These factors seem to form a simple equation that can explain how the best derbies/rivalries are built:

Geography+ (specific event x time)=solid derby/rivalry

Geography is important because supporters of different teams need to be of relative proximity to one another. It is hard for the Los Angeles Galaxy to have a rivalry with D.C. United because the two are thousands of miles apart. Technology and globalization help break down this distance barrier but there is still nothing worse than having to see someone at a bar every week rub it in your face that their team is better.

Specific events are also important. Derbies need a lightning rod, something that sparks the intensity between the two sides. For D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls it was the three game playoff series during the 1996 MLS Cup Playoffs. United lost the first match 3-2 in a running penalty shootout. But United were able to come back in Game 2, wining 2-1, setting up Game 3. In that match a poor challenge late by New York/New Jersey MetroStars (the former name of the Red Bulls) defender Rob Johnson gave United the chance to take the lead and overcome New York/New Jersey.

There have been other moments as well. In April 2006, D.C. United forward Alecko Eskandarian gave his thoughts about the New York Red Bulls name change. After scoring the game’s first goal in the 45th minute he took a swig from a can of Red Bull and proceeded to spit it on the ground of Giants Stadium. As one can imagine that did not set well with Red Bulls management or supporters.

Although it sounds petty and foolish these particular moments are integral to a derby because they provide focal points of contention. Over time, they are replayed over and over again and what was once just a moment can become a very specific part of a team and supporter’s fabric.

So the question is what makes a derby in MLS? While this answer might be pretty simple for teams from the Cascadia region, whose history dates back over 40 years, it has been very difficult for the rest of the league. The lack of true derbies in MLS can be attributed due to the number of teams with minimal histories, the distance between teams, and the league’s lack of media.

That isn’t to say that the league hasn’t tried to push artificial rivalries. For example, for years the league has tried to push the Philadelphia Union as a rival to D.C. United given their relative proximity to one another and that the two cities are often grouped together in other sports.

But the two clubs have never really had a spark with one another other than supporters might not like each other in baseball or hockey. Things like the Trilium Cup  (which is played by the Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC) and the “David Beckham-Thierry Henry” New York-LA rivalry are examples of these failed initiatives.


When rivalries do develop outside of the League offices they are very rarely given any coverage. Derbies like the Rocky Mountain Cup (which was created by a committee of supporters of the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake) and the California Clasico between the Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes are rarely shown on national TV.

Meanwhile, the league has a potential powder keg of a Cup rivalry between the three Canadian teams (Montreal Impact, Toronto F.C., and the Vancouver Whitecaps) yet seems to be completely uninterested in getting them to play one another.

So if the league cannot push derbies, just how can they be created? They have to be done naturally, either through a specific event or by the actions of the supporters. This does not mean supporters need to re-enact Bill Buford’s ‘Among the Thugs’. Rather, if supporters can come together and foster relationships or acrimony with one another then that can serve as a focal point to build a rivalry. The league needs to learn to be patient with these things and not rush them.

The most recent example of this is the budding rivalry between NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls. While the two have not even played a match, things are already coming to a head in the New York Metropolitan area. Both sides, via their supporters and rather large billboards, have been engaging in a war of words over who is the number one team in the area.

Things like the Red Bulls setting up their affiliate at Columbia University in New York City (just a short walk away from Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC play) may seem like small potatoes but it sets up another brick that a potential NYCFC-NYRB derby can be built off of.

Once rivalries have been established organically then the league can can step in and publicize it. If MLS truly wants derbies to exist, they need to show the matches on national television. Stop showing the Los Angeles Galaxy every week and give some attention to the Rocky Mountain Cup or the Brimstone Cup (which is played between the Chicago Fire and F.C. Dallas). The more people become aware of these matches the more relevance they will have in the sport.

Derby matches are some of the most exciting games that soccer schedule can offer. While not every match is great, they almost always certainly provide some level of drama. The reason for this is because they are organic and they come from true feelings that supporters have towards one another. Rather than forcing these derbies into being, MLS need to let them develop over time then help build them into true rivalries.

The Author

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-mls/id979377624?mt=2

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