There was a lot of chatter about rivalries in 2015. Orlando City was searching for the other half of its dichotomy, looking for an opponent where there was an extra level of animosity for both the players and the fans.
There was an underlying desire for it to grow organically; the idea of a rivalry with New York City FC was tossed about in small circles but never really came about. They were expansion counterparts, nothing more. Until the physical dogfight that started the 2017 season for both clubs, there was no extra dislike among the fanbases.
When MLS’ Rivalry Week came up on the schedule, there was nothing for Lions fans to look forward to. While pitched battles between Seattle and Portland or Montreal and Toronto filled prime time slots, Orlando was relegated to a midday Saturday slot against a Midwestern team that also didn’t have time for a rivalry match on that particular weekend.
But the biggest battles on the pitch in that inaugural year came from an unlikely source. Matches against the Columbus Crew were physical affairs filled with cards of every color, questionable penalties awarded, dramatic game-winners, lopsided results to rub both sets of fans the wrong way, and even an extra meeting in the U.S. Open Cup.
The Crew legitimately looked like the first organic rivals for Orlando City in MLS. Even the club itself ranked the Crew as the top choice for potential rivals. There was good reason for it; the earliest meetings were more like brawls than soccer matches. Physical altercations between players and a subsequent retaliation got Rafael Ramos sent off in their first meeting en-route to a comfortable 3-0 victory for Columbus. Kei Kamara made his living scoring against the Lions and made an enemy of himself for celebrating as much as he could in front of The Wall. Michael Parkhurst was sent off in the return fixture for a more-than-questionable handball call and Orlando went on to snatch a draw with some late heroics from Pedro Ribeiro. A drubbing at the hands of the Lions finished the year as they put five in the back of the Crew net. Two blowouts, one for either team, and a contentious draw seemed a fitting result.
But with 2016 came the expectations of similar contests that never happened. Even though Orlando City failed to defeat the Crew last year, there was nothing like the controversial red cards or penalties or physical challenges of the year prior. Kei Kamara moved on to New England and the hatred dissipated. It didn’t help that neither Orlando nor Columbus were in playoff positions, finishing eighth and ninth, respectively, in the Eastern Conference.
Now the animosity has moved on to Atlanta United and even back to NYCFC as the Crew are forgotten as a rival after a short period of time. Geographical and historical reasons took precedent over the on-field history between players that are no longer in purple or yellow. Even Ramos, who was the center of most of the scuffles in 2015, is still not fit enough to play.
But there’s a chance that fire could be reignited. With three matches against each other in 2017, the stage is set to reignite what was there two seasons ago. And with Columbus looking resurgent in the early days of the season — currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference table after ending Portland’s flying start — and Orlando potentially solving its deficiencies, these matches have a lot of weight in the coming playoff race. Orlando’s new fiery pairing in central defense of Jose Aja and Jonathan Spector has the opportunity to spark some clashes in the center of the park.
Is there enough animosity left to resurrect the rivalry atmosphere? We’ll find out Saturday.