Orlando City and Atlanta United have yet to play each other in a match. One club is in the third year of its MLS existence, the other in its first. But even with one club still in its formative MLS years and the other in its top-flight infancy, and never having faced off, there has been a lot of chatter surrounding whether or not Orlando City vs. Atlanta United should already be considered a rivalry match.
Given the clubs’ regional affiliation in the South — they’re the only two MLS clubs in the entirety of the Southeast, including the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia — there was always going to be potential for a rivalry due to geographic proximity. However, many people, like Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis, believe that actual matches need to happen before a rivalry can be branded.
“I am one of those people that believes that rivalries should be intrinsic, and rivalries should happen through experiences and through matches,” Kreis said to reporters following training last week when asked about Atlanta. “So for me, I don’t know if it will be a rivalry or not — we shall wait and see.”
Kreis doubled down on his comments on Wednesday, and Atlanta United Head Coach Tata Martino seemed to agree, albeit in somewhat different terms.
Tata: the way people experience soccer here is different so I don't see a rivalry with Orlando— Dirty South Soccer (@DirtySouthSoc) July 18, 2017
The comments from the two mangers probably don’t really jibe with the league’s stance, at least based on what MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in 2016.
“Rivalries are a big part of our strategy,” he said. “Our highest rated television events are the ones that are our rivalry matches. So rivalries are important. Whether it’s Cincinnati and Columbus, or it’s (Kansas City) and St. Louis, this idea that getting this communal, tribal engagement is important to us."
With the league having a history of trying to manufacture rivalries — which has led to some fun backlash from fans at times — it’s no surprise that Orlando City vs. Atlanta United would be seen as a prime opportunity to expand its rivalry branding. It can be labeled “The Battle of the South” or something like that and aired as part of “Rivalry Week.” It makes sense for the league, and the two clubs do have a much more logical potential for a true rivalry than any of Orlando’s other MLS foes.
Two matches between the clubs in an eight-day span will certainly put things into a bit of a fast-forward in terms of on-the-pitch relations between the clubs, but whether you like it or not, or whether or not you wanted to take a wait-and-see approach before buying into the rivalry talk, it seems like the rivalry with Atlanta United is going to be forced upon us eventually regardless.
Atlanta United took a forward approach this week to escalating things, putting up a billboard two blocks away from Orlando City Stadium announcing its intentions to conquer. Whether this was encouraged by MLS or just an overture from United owner Arthur Blank and co., it’s clear that ATL is embracing the spirit of a regional competition. Orlando City using phrases like “Will the South be Purple?” show that the Lions, too, are open to the idea.
So whether or not you believe that rivalries should be developed on the field of play over time like Kreis or not, we might as well accept that Orlando City vs. Atlanta United will be branded and marketed as a rivalry regardless of the on-field happenings. It makes sense financially for MLS, it seems inevitable, and resistance is futile.