It’s been over two years since the last meeting between an Orlando City side and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was a slugfest back then, with matches generally finishing with single goal differences and fans getting into altercations that made national news. The I-4 Derby was a proper rivalry — something Orlando City hasn’t really had since — generated by the genuine dislike of the population centers for each other.
Even though they were separated in the soccer pyramid by division and in the U.S. Open Cup by geographic regions (the Rowdies are considered part of the central region, often getting paired in the same bracket with the likes of Chicago and Columbus, while Orlando resides in the east), the two sides sported a passionate distaste for the other.
But back in 2014, it was only for bragging rights. Technically, The I-4 Derby was a bunch of glorified scrimmages, though they were the unfriendliest of friendlies. Tampa Bay never claimed so much as a draw, losing every match to Orlando both home and away. So when the league announced that the season would begin for the Rowdies and Orlando City B on the banks of the bay, all of Central Florida circled their calendars.
There are different expectations this time around with Orlando City B. The majority of the roster is under the age of 24 — with a handful of teenagers — still developing their craft and trying to break into a higher level of the game. But now, these matches count for points in the standings; there are more than bragging rights on the line.
There have already been statements made by former Lions ahead of the match, with Dennis Chin and Jamie Watson weighing in on the USL fixture.
Anthony Pulis, who experienced the original I-4 Derby firsthand, knows what to expect. He told orlandocitysc.com:
“To play in this derby means a lot, especially to our hardcore supporters that have been here from day one. We’ve made the players aware that this is a really important game, not just for us and the Club but the supporters,”
Now, with the added weight of fighting for a playoff spot with a much-improved Rowdies side, it could mean even more for the Lions. But for the Rowdies, who are trying to secure something greater than points in the standings, this weekend is crucial.
Tampa Bay’s recent and fevered push for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise has put its season — and especially this match — under even more of a microscope. It’s not just important for the Rowdies to get results. They need to show that they are capable of pulling the crowds to Al Lang Stadium and that those crowds are passionate about the game. Their home opener being a match against a strong rival (even if it’s only Orlando City’s reserves) means it’s going to be an important benchmark for their future success.
MLS has been adamant about rivalries being an important factor in the expansion process; if the Florida franchises can prove their fans will get interested even with OCB as the involved team, it will do wonders for the St. Petersburg bid.
Both sides should be full of young MLS talent, with a host of players available from Orlando City’s first team on an off week. The Rowdies have signed their fair share of young players with MLS experience, including Damion Lowe, Darwin Jones — formerly of the Seattle Sounders — and Deshorn Brown, who led the Colorado Rapids line from 2013-2015. There are some more familiar faces for Orlando fans as well, with both Luke Boden and Martin Paterson suiting up in the green and yellow this weekend.
With the history between the players and fan bases, the stage has been set for an epic contest. There’s finally something tangible on the line for two sides that haven’t needed it in the past.