Given time to mature, Rivalry Week has become appointment viewing in MLS
The truth about competitions is that they are always better when there's history between the two sides. Think Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Red Sox vs. Yankees, David vs. Goliath. A good rivalry, promoted in a smart way, only adds to the drama, heightening the anticipation in the stands and enhancing the effort on the field. A little bit of friendly animosity between two foes never hurt anyone. Well, except for Goliath.
That's the idea behind Major League Soccer's Rivalry Week, which debuted in 2015. Take competitive games between regional foes and add a bit of juice to the games. At first, it was a bit of a bore, an obvious creation dreamt up in the league's headquarters, something that felt corporate first and fan-friendly second. Instead of being something created by the fans like the Supporters' Shield or the Cascadia Cup, then adopted (or, perhaps, co-opted) by MLS HQ, it was an attempt to force fans to get into something new.
As such, initially, it all felt a little soulless and corporate. But a few years and a handful of Rivalry Weeks later, it's developing into an event worth watching. The week's six matches -- Dallas vs. Houston, New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC, D.C. vs. New England, Montreal vs. Toronto, LA vs. San Jose and Seattle vs. Portland -- are mostly enticing fixtures packed with exciting storylines. Rivalry Week is growing up nicely.
There are a few reasons for the improvement. A major one is simple: time. Rivalries need time to develop, time to mature, time to grow. Fan bases and supporter groups need moments where their club embarrasses the opposition to hold on to and memorialize in cheers and chants. MLS as a league, and Rivalry Week specifically, benefits from the passing years. The weekend marks the 10th 401 Derby between Montreal and Toronto in MLS play, the 12th Texas Derby and the 20th California Clasico. Even the newer rivalries, like the Hudson River Derby between the Red Bulls and NYCFC, have their special games -- hello, 7-0. Familiarity breeds contempt, and contempt leads to enthusiasm and excitement.
Rivalry Week is also an example of MLS executives understanding the limits of their power. They can help create the framework for Rivalry Week, working with television networks and teams to build something that promotes the week and the league. They can give Rivalry Week a push -- the Heineken House in LA, human foosball in Herald Square -- but they can't make it work by themselves. That has to come from the fans, from the people in the stadiums. It's a delicate balance to push hard but not too hard, to make something created in a boardroom feel organic.
In 2017, it's finally starting to feel like the mix is right.
The number of games helps make this whole thing feel big and important, too. The first Rivalry Week of 2017 featured just three fixtures: Houston-Dallas, Red Bulls-NYCFC and Seattle-Portland. Those are all fine games and strong rivalries, but a trio of games do not a Rivalry Week make. Half a dozen matches featuring more than half the league, however, give the appearance of a genuine undertaking rather than one of convenient scheduling.
This edition of Rivalry Week comes late in the season where it benefits from hosting games that matter. If NYCFC want to have any chance to catch Toronto in the Supporters' Shield race, they need a win this weekend. Seattle can stake a claim for the top spot in the Western Conference with a victory. Three points would do wonders for the playoff chances of Dallas, Houston, Montreal and Portland. San Jose is desperate to sneak into the sixth spot.
While D.C., New England and the LA Galaxy are battling through lost seasons, they can all build some semblance of momentum for 2018 with a strong finish, especially refurbished United. Each one of these games matters in the standings and for the fans.
Rivalry Week isn't perfect, though. On one hand, six games is a lot. On the other, 10 teams are left out, playing matches that feel diminished because they aren't part of the show. Plus, factor in all the games played this week, and Rivalry Week accounts for just six out of 18 matches. Why not include some others in the official Rivalry Week, like the Rocky Mountain Cup between Real Salt Lake and Colorado or Chicago against Minnesota, a new fixture but one that could develop into some sort of Midwest rivalry in the future?
MLS loves its big events. Make Rivalry Week even bigger.
Additionally, as MLS expands, some rivalries are in danger of getting left behind. While the rivalry between NYCFC and the Red Bulls is already more intense than many thought it would become, ask Red Bulls fans and they will tell you that they consider D.C. United to be their most disliked opposition. Yet executives from the league and the two New York City clubs made sure to build an NYC game into Rivalry Week. New York is red, New York is blue, etc. But what color is the corridor between D.C. and NYC? Balancing history, tradition, and the desires of the fans with more commercial side of Rivalry Week is difficult, and it will only grow harder as MLS continues to expand.
Still, on balance, Rivalry Week has been a success. It might have taken a few years to gain its footing, but any good coach will tell you that nothing comes together immediately.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.