I seem to dedicate a lot of time to rivalries in this space. Orlando City’s relative youth as a Major League Soccer club means we, collectively as a fanbase and the team, are searching for our place in the mix. In a league that stresses rivalries from the corporate top to the grassroots bottom, it matters that we are a part of those conversations.
From the league’s Heineken Rivalry Week match-ups to supporter group-organized derby trophies, MLS has realized its business model relies on people giving a damn about their games. This wasn’t a lightning strike of inspiration in MLS HQ, but simply observing the natural rivalry that came out of the Pacific Northwest, between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland — cities where teams named the Whitecaps, Sounders, and Timbers have been meeting up in various league competitions since the heydays of the old NASL.
Suddenly, supporters, the media, and the league quickly played connect-the-dots to facilitate rivalries, natural or otherwise, with as many clubs as possible. All of a sudden Los Angeles and San Jose were a California Clásico and Dallas and Houston were a Texas Derby.
As Atlanta United FC entered the league this past season, the league was quick to attempt to place their regional rivalry template on the South. Despite some exciting games, few people in either city thought much of these games as anything but a shorter road trip for away games. While rivalries take time to intensify, obviously, the Orlando vs. Atlanta match-up feels too forced from the start.
Add to that the recent stadium funding announcement that sent Nashville to the head of the MLS’s possible expansion list, and Atlanta supporters have shifted their gaze longingly at a potential Southern rival between two of the capitals of the New South.
In a league that stresses the importance of rivalries, Orlando City risks isolation and obscurity if another Florida team doesn’t figure out a way into the league. While we’ve collectively enjoyed a laugh at Miami Beckham United FC’s bumble through every attempt to find a stadium site, Orlando’s long-term security is directly connected to Miami’s ability to find a suitable site to sink the commemorative golden spade that announces a stadium construction.
Orlando’s other hope, and natural rivals, the Tampa Bay Rowdies have yet to make too many waves in the expansion race. A few days ago, SI.com’s Grant Wahl reported:
“talking to several insiders, I’m being told the two expansion teams will likely come from a group of three cities that includes Sacramento, Nashville and Cincinnati.”
This is just this first round of expansion, and there will be another casting call in another year or two, but Tampa has done nothing to distinguish themselves beyond an overwhelmingly successful vote for public funding for stadium refurbishments should the Rowdies have a chance to answer the MLS call.
Wahl’s comments on MLS expansion also included positive news about the Miami bid, but we’ve all heard positive news about Miami’s chances in the past. For Orlando’s sake, maybe the next time David Beckham stands in front of the bright lights, it won’t be to announce that there is an announcement pending.
Orlando has built itself a soccer specific stadium and packed it with respectable crowds this past season. As a young franchise, it has done everything right. Still, without a natural rival, Orlando runs the risk of becoming an isolated novelty to the league. Rivalry games keep interest in rough seasons and drive television ratings. The league knows that.
As Orlando City enters season four, it is Kaká-less, Cyle Larin is looking Europe-bound, and the club is still without a postseason appearance to its name. While none of that matters to the die-hard supporters, it is crucial to keeping the interests of casual supporters, the league’s front office, and the television networks. Without a natural rival, the coming season could push Orlando closer and closer to that team MLS forgets all about.