Old feuds meet new derbies: Which MLS rivalries will last?
If you followed U.S. soccer twitter last week, you couldn't have missed the early skirmishes in the LA #soccerwarz (© New York 2015), as rival supporters groups of the LA Galaxy and soon-to-be LAFC expressed themselves through the medium of defaced murals.
It was a very MLS type of social moment — the type of scenario where a small incident is asked to bear a weight of cultural significance and analysis it was never designed to support. And it provoked in me the familiar ambivalence I have when dealing with supporter culture in the league.
I've long felt that those who run the supporters sections lend way more cultural weight to the MLS project than they are ever given due and appropriate credit for, by league and broader sporting culture alike. On the other hand, their own sense of that injustice, and their need to carve out space for its significance, can occasionally tip into a kind of absurd self-importance.
It's inevitable that that absurdity seems at its most pronounced when there's just no actual experience to root it in. Expansion clubs may emerge out of greater or lesser local soccer traditions, depending on the city in question, and there may be longstanding histories that inform their arrival, but it’s hard not to see proclamations of "(your brand here) 'til I die" as affectations, when no ball has been kicked. There's no substitute for time and games.
That's why last weekend's match between the Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes was such a pointed pleasure. The shared history of those two teams has been lovingly (hatefully?) nurtured by both sets of fans to create a Californian rivalry that resonates for everyone who carries the experience of it. And after a week of "changing landscape of LA" thought pieces, based on a few taggers, it was great to get a reminder that history happens when you play games, and that that history deepens and becomes enriched through experience.
A few years ago, I used to do fan previews for the Guardian, working with supporters groups around the league to preview the weekend's action and take the temperature of whatever the local obsessions were at any given time. It happened to coincide with San Jose's great year in 2012, when its fan base, always proudly belligerent, seemed to be in perfect synchronicity with their team. If you squinted during the last five minutes of the "Goonies never say die" year, it looked like Alan Gordon was pogo-ing as the fans tumbled over themselves in the stands beside him.
Then when the Galaxy ended San Jose’s Supporters’ Shield-winning season in the playoffs, it felt like watching an experienced boxer working his opponent's cut. Robbie Keane mercilessly exploited the Quakes’ loss of Victor Bernardez to injury in the 12th minute by repeatedly attacking the space he would have been covering. The likes of Keane, Gordon, Bernardez, and latterly Jelle Van Damme have seemed made for games like these — games where their own qualities seem outsized and exaggerated to the point of caricature; games that have historically been played with a genuine enmity based on what the other team represents.
But with a new coaching regime and a new in-market rival, just what the Galaxy represents appears to be somewhat in flux right now, making the intensity of that five-goal first half with San Jose a welcome surprise for the neutral — a reminder of this rivalry's best qualities.
I hope it continues with the same intensity, but watching what has happened to the New York Red Bulls’ rivalry with D.C. United in the wake of New York City FC's arrival in the league, it'll be hard to maintain the intensity in the same way. For older fans, especially MLS originals, D.C. vs New York will always be the unquestioned big game. But that legacy will be even harder to sustain as the Red Bulls’ rivalry with NYCFC grows, particularly among younger and newfound fans starting to experience and own a more local set of arguments.
There's definitely been something intimate about the way resentments between the blue and red halves of New York have emerged, that at the very least complicates the relationship with D.C. United. Recent games between New York and D.C. have had something of the air of a couple who divorced in nasty fashion years ago, but who can't quite remember the original source of the animosity. And with one party distracted by its own new relationship, it's harder to summon the same intensity, even when it seems to be a matter of principle to do so.
The Galaxy-Earthquakes rivalry will undergo its own evolution, too, when LAFC arrives in MLS next year. With the Galaxy already working out its post-Bruce Arena trajectory, the imminent arrival of loud downtown arrivistes is inevitably going to be a consuming concern. LA-San Jose won't necessarily fade to irrelevance, but for the local fans who come to the game in the next 20 years, it'll be interesting to see who inherits and maintains which rivalry as folk memory from their elders.
Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.