Brazil v. Argentina (men). United States v. Canada (women). United States v. Mexico (men). New York Red Bulls v. DC United. Los Angeles Galaxy v. San Jose Earthquakes. Chelsea v. Arsenal. El Clásico. Der Klassiker. Manchester Derby.
Where sports go, rivalries follow. Whether it’s a series of tightly contested matches, a heartbreaking championship loss, the defection of a popular player, or geographical proximity, every team has its bitter foe. Soccer is no exception. Although the term ‘derby’ originally referred to matches between two teams in the same town or region, it’s often used to refer to any soccer rivalry.
In the NWSL’s fourth season, the league decided to attempt to create some of these rivalries by having the teams closest to each other meet four times instead of two. For instance, Chicago will play FC Kansas City four times this season but the other eight teams only twice. On paper, it looks like a good idea. Not only will this cut down on travel costs, but rivalries can evoke strong emotions, build loyalty, and sell tickets. In theory, anyway.
Over halfway through the season, with each rivalry meeting at least once, fan reaction has been mixed. Everyone, including people who aren’t fans of either team, looks forward to the meeting of Seattle and Portland, but the Cascadia derby preceded this season and would have thrived even if they only met once this year. On the other end of the spectrum, no one, probably including the Flash themselves, is looking forward to watching Western New York beat up on Boston two more times before season’s end. And (fittingly) in the middle is the congenial Midwestern pairing of Chicago and Kansas City, which always makes for enjoyable soccer but lacks real tension.
In fact, it appears the only pairing that has even somewhat gained ground is Washington v. Sky Blue. The series is split, with each team winning one apiece, and the teams are as evenly matched as any of the pairings. While the match-up is probably inflated by the misconception of conflict between two National Team teammates and a minor controversy over a (harmless) chant by one supporters’ group, fans are still anticipating their next meeting.
An aspect of this uneven schedule that many were concerned about was its impact on points and standings, and it appears that concern wasn’t without merit. Half of Orlando’s 18 points have come from Houston alone. Western New York has put up eleven goals in two games against Boston, greatly affecting both teams’ goal differential. At the end of the season, this could make a difference on the table.
In May, with the NWSL on a break for the FIFA window, I had the pleasure of witnessing what could be a proper rivalry. The Houston Dash played FC Dallas Women of the WPSL as the first match of a doubleheader with FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo. The Texas Derby is a highlight of each teams’ season regardless of the effect on standings, if any, with the winner becoming the temporary owner of El Capitán, a replica 18th century cannon. Leading up to game day, both sides engaged in social media trash talk, hyping both matches.
Give the NWSL credit for trying. The joy in sports come from passion, and nothing stirs emotion more than the anticipation of facing your fiercest enemy, the joy that comes in crushing them into the ground, and the despair when they somehow emerge triumphant. But rivalries cannot be fabricated. They are organic, rooted in human nature. They’ll happen as the teams continue to duke it out on the pitch, but, as most fans expected, they’re not here yet.