In 2015, Orlando City and the Columbus Crew built a rivalry of sorts on the field. While that never came to fruition over the years since, recent off-field incidents have created some animosity between the two clubs once again.
During Orlando City’s first year in MLS, there were no teams nearby to create rivalries. At that time, Atlanta United and Inter Miami CF were not in the league and the two nearest teams — D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo — were both more than 850 miles away. If a rivalry formed that season, it would have had to come from on the field.
Since Orlando City and New York City FC came into the league at the same time in two different ways, many expected this to be the Lions’ chief rival. However, NYCFC had the New York Red Bulls on its doorstep, leaving Orlando on the back burner. By the end of 2015, it appeared as though a team from Ohio would be the Lions’ biggest rival of them all.
The Lions and Crew faced off four times that year. Most of the animosity between the clubs and their fan bases came from events on the field. In the first match, Orlando City right back Rafael Ramos took out Waylon Francis with a very dangerous tackle, resulting in a red card. The Crew took advantage and ran away with a 3-0 win. A little over a month later, the two teams met again in Orlando. This time, it was the Lions that would take the man advantage as Michael Parkhurst was sent off in the 15th minute. However, the hosts were unable to capitalize, only coming away with a 2-2 draw.
The third time the two teams met that year was in a knockout competition. Hosted at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the two teams faced off in a U.S. Open Cup match. Goals by Kaká and Carlos Rivas were enough to lift the Lions to a 2-0 win, their first against the team from Ohio.
With each team claiming a win and a draw in the season series, a late season affair would be the rubber match. The Lions were coming off a tough 5-3 loss to NYCFC and were trying to climb back into the playoff race. Following a hat trick performance in New York, it was rookie striker Cyle Larin who made the difference against the Crew. His two goals helped lift the Lions to a 5-2 win, allowing them to claim the season series.
A big reason why a rivalry seemed to be boiling was the existence of Columbus striker Kei Kamara. The Sierra Leone international scored in both of the first two games and made himself public enemy number one at the Citrus Bowl after taunting the Orlando City supporters’ section following a goal. He created further controversy when he walked over the center circle tarp at the Citrus Bowl, eliciting boos from the home crowd.
Before the two teams could face off in 2016, Kamara was traded to the New England Revolution. While the hatred for Kamara remained in Orlando, it took a lot away from what could’ve been a strong rivalry with the Crew.
As the focus of Crew fans shifted to their fight to save the Crew from being relocated to Austin, TX and Orlando City sank deeper into the basement of MLS, the contentiousness went away. While the animosity left matches between Orlando and Columbus on the field, off-the-field incidents created a strained relationship between the clubs and fans.
Prior to the 2018 season, Orlando City traded for Crew player Justin Meram. The addition of the former Crew winger was one of several moves made by Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis and General Manager Niki Budalic in an attempt to turn things around. However, Orlando had its worst season to date, finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference. Orlando City fans placed much of the blame on Meram’s lack of production and he claimed to receive death threats from some within the fan base who were unhappy with his play.
Regardless of how Crew fans felt about Meram when he left, he played seven seasons for the club. So they certainly weren’t pleased he was apparently sent into a depressive state in Orlando. Just six months after being traded to Orlando, the Lions sent Meram back to Columbus.
While the treatment of Meram was unwelcome for Crew fans, Orlando City did more damage later that year. As the Save the Crew fight continued and time was winding down, the two teams met near the end of the 2018 season in Orlando. Each game, Orlando City offers a LionNation loyalty rewards code for fans. The one for this game was widely seen as insensitive to the Crew’s situation. Images of the code, which said “Disband the Crew,” floated around the internet, upsetting Crew fans fighting to avoid that fate.
These incidents are what made Saturday’s exchange all the more interesting. The two teams were supposed to face off in a preseason friendly in Cancun, Mexico, but the Crew decided to cancel the game because of field conditions. As Orlando City’s social media accounts tend to do, they took a shot at the Crew for canceling the game. The Crew responded by claiming they were justified in their decision.
Orlando City Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations poured a little bit of fuel on the fire himself.
The birds are too loud around this field..— Luiz Muzzi (@Luiz_Muzzi) February 1, 2020
The exchange set off a social media firestorm as the two fan bases went after each other. Orlando fans called the Crew soft while Crew fans claimed that OCSC didn’t care about player safety. The Lions played an intra-squad scrimmage instead and posted photos that seem to show the field in acceptable playing condition at the time the match was supposed to take place. And, of course, the OCSC account couldn’t resist taking another shot at Columbus about the weather conditions.
Tons of fire and passion in our inter-squad match today.— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) February 1, 2020
But not one drop of rain. pic.twitter.com/4eVzrHoM45
Orlando City and the Columbus Crew have faced off in one U.S. Open Cup game but have yet to meet in the playoffs. Despite this, they’ve managed to create a history of hostility both on and off the field. We’ll see if that hostility continues when the two face off this season on April 11 in Columbus.