Historic derby day builds deeper MLS tradition
While there weren’t many goals to celebrate during Major League Soccer’s “Rivalry Week”, stadiums across USA were brimming with excitement and passion this weekend when throngs of supporters came out to cheer on their club in the league’s first-ever version of a derby day.
Eighteen of the league’s nineteen teams were in action and seven of the nine matches featured rivalries rich with tradition that MLS hopes will one day mirror the passion and intensity of football’s most famous derbies.
With the exception of the Los Angeles derby between Galaxy and Chivas USA, derbies in the United States and Canada are difficult to cultivate, considering teams regularly travel thousands of miles criss-crossing the country to play one another.
However, as MLS enters its 18th season, enough time has passed since the league’s inception in 1996 for intense rivalry between clubs within close geographical proximity – such as New York Red Bulls and D.C. United - to percolate and mould into storied histories. The recent expansion of America’s top-flight league has also renewed bitter rivalries that date well beyond Major League Soccer’s existence and back into the 1970s during the heyday of the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL).
Despite the distance of even the closest rivalries (the trip from RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. up the I-95 to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey is a three-and-a-half hour drive) travelling supporters throughout the country displayed their colours proudly and made their voices heard for 90 minutes. Hundreds of members La Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles, two of D.C. United’s most fervent supporters groups made the trip north, while more than 200 Chicago Fire supporters made the seven-and-a-half hour trip to see their club battle Sporting Kansas City to a 0-0 draw and over 1,000 fans from Portland drove north on the I-5 to watch Rodney Wallace and the Timbers snatch a late equaliser against Seattle Sounders at Century Link Field.
Toronto break visiting supporter record
Over 4,000 Toronto FC fans made the trek down the 401 to see the Reds take on Montreal Impact at Olympic Stadium, shattering the previous MLS record for visiting supporters, already claimed by Toronto, when 2,400 made the trip to Columbus in 2008. And it wasn’t just the die-hard supporters that came out to these rivalries either. 40,150 fans were in attendance at Century Link Field, while more than 37,000 fans were on hand at Olympic Stadium.
But gate receipts and the number of visiting supporters who made the trip with their clubs aren’t the only factors MLS considers when judging the success, significance and importance of the weekend. The extensive, ten-hour continuous coverage throughout the day Saturday by national network television broadcasters NBC and NBC Sports helped MLS’ “Rivalry Week” reach the homes of many viewers who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise be aware of the league’s pride and passion.
Collectively, all signs from this weekend indicate Major League Soccer is continuing its upward trend of developing itself as a proper top-tier professional league within the United States and Canada. And as the roots of the league’s traditions grow deeper and the ferocity of its biggest rivalries burns brighter, future derby days will continue to bring out the best of MLS and what it has to offer to the American sports market.