Local derbies key to league success

Major League Soccer needs to embrace and promote rivalries for the future of the league.

By Michael King

During the past two weekends of MLS action, we’ve seen the best of what the league offers in terms of rivalries. A match between Chivas USA and the Los Angles Galaxy on Saturday, as well as the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders last weekend, demonstrated the sport’s potential for creating consistently exciting matches between the same two teams.

These games featured an intensity and competitive flair that is not often felt in a typical regular season game. It’s not difficult to reason why ESPN chose these matches to feature in its ‘Game of the Week’ coverage. Clearly these matches were special for both the fans and players.

As Major League Soccer continues to expand and establish itself as a popular sports league, the development of such rivalries is critical to its growth.

The other major American sports thrive on their long-established rivalries through the associated increased media coverage and fan interest. It’s evident that interest peaks in baseball when the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees compete, especially in the playoffs.

But the development of rivalries can be a delicate and gradual process. In other sports, rivalries developed from shared competitive experiences in addition to location. For example, the Boston Celtics and Los Angles Lakers of the National Basketball Association share a much celebrated rivalry despite a 3,000 mile gap between the two franchises. Their competitive relationship evolved over decades of competing directly against each other for championships.

Significant fan interest in domestic soccer leagues around the world is derived from such rivalries, or local derbies as they’re commonly referred to in England. That country boasts several cities with multiple teams, creating intense rivalries throughout its top-flight league.

But simply placing two teams in close proximity isn’t a guarantee for a rivalry. For example, when the Boston and New York MLS franchises play, fans typically don’t perceive it as a unique match other than the opportunity to watch international stars Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez compete.

However, given the league’s limited history, geographical rivalries are the best opportunity to develop notable rivalries.

Presently, the four aforementioned franchises, Chivas, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, best positioned to develop these rivalries. Even through ESPN’s MLS Game of the Week coverage, we could discern that there was an increased level of passion among the players and fans given the unique circumstances of the games.

The Galaxy and Chivas are natural rivals since they share a stadium as well as play in the soccer-friendly city of Los Angeles. This rivalry has grown in recent years given the competitive sides fielded by the two franchises. In addition, any circumstance for the league to market two of its biggest stars, midfielders Landon Donovan and David Beckham, benefits the sport.

Portland and Seattle, on the other hand, arguably have the greatest potential. While Portland is one of the newest MLS franchises, the Timbers drew large amounts of fans as a member of the USL and has sold out its arena thus far this season.Seattle, of course, is the perpetual leader in MLS attendance. Its combination of rabid fan base and large-capacity facility gives the team an average of nearly 10,000 more fans per game than the team with the second-highest attendance during the past several years.

Also, the close proximity of these two cities (about three hours via I-5), encourages fan travel to their rival’s stadium. Timbers fans were a notable presence in Seattle and the same should be expected in Portland when the teams meet again later this year.

As with any league, non-geographically based rivalries will develop over time. But until it reaches this stage in the U.S., the MLS needs to aggressively market its current rivalries to grow the sport throughout the country.

Michael King is a contributing writer for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at king.mak04@gmail.com.

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