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The Roots of a Rivalry: The Start of the I-4 Derby Between Orlando City and the Tampa Bay Rowdies

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A look back at Orlando City’s first I-4 Derby victory.

Image Courtesy of Orlando City SC

If you follow Orlando City, you might notice that a portion of the fan base doesn’t have very fond feelings towards the Tampa Bay Rowdies. This animosity goes back to when the two teams were in the lower division. The Rowdies played in the second division NASL while the Lions played in the third division USL Pro. In 2013, the two clubs set up a rivalry match-up dubbed the I-4 Derby.

The current incarnation of the Tampa Bay Rowdies came to be in 2008 and started play in 2010 in the old USL. They transitioned to the NASL in 2011. Orlando City started in 2010 when Phil Rawlins bought the USL rights to Orlando from Steve Donner, the owner of the local indoor lacrosse team. Despite the two teams being just 106 miles apart, the teams didn’t meet up until 2013.

The first game the two teams played against each other was on Feb. 23 in the WDW Pro Soccer Classic at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. It was the third-place game of an MLS preseason tournament. The Lions won that game with a first-minute penalty conversion by Jamie Watson and a 78th-minute sealer by Dennis Chin.

Looking to build a local rivalry, the two clubs set up a preseason battle, dubbed the I-4 Derby. The first of those matched was played at the Citrus Bowl on March 9 and the second leg was played at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg on March 30.

In that first game in Orlando, a 17th-minute goal by Amani Walker came from a bad giveaway by Oumar Diakhite. Trailing 1-0 at the half, the Lions came out of the locker room flying. Watson equalized in the 49th minute and goals by James O’Connor in the 58th and Jean Alexandre in the 70th made it 3-1 late. The visitors did get one back in the 75th minute through Luke Mulholland but it wasn’t enough as Orlando City took the first leg, 3-2.

While the first game was memorable, it was the second game that had the biggest impact. It was a game that saw Orlando City take home a trophy, albeit a preseason one, and was the beginning of a club legend.

The Lions took the early lead in the fifth minute when Adama Mbengue sent a nice ball through multiple defenders for a charging Kevin Molino. The reigning USL Pro MVP dribbled around Rowdies goalkeeper Andrew Fontein and gently played the ball into the back of the net. The visitors doubled their lead in the 32nd minute when Bryan Burke sent a long ball for the newly acquired Dom Dwyer. In his first game as a Lion, the on-loan striker played a quick one-two with Watson before firing with his left foot. Fontein blocked the shot, but it fell right to Mbengue, who put it into the empty net.

With a 5-2 aggregate lead, it looked as though the Lions had secured the I-4 Derby. However, the home side didn’t go away quietly. In the 41st minute, Takuya Yamade converted a penalty and Amani Walker scored his second of the tie in the 52nd minute, making it 2-2 and 5-4 on aggregate.

The Rowdies pushed forward late, looking for the equalizing goal, but this provided some room for the team in front. In the 90th minute, Miguel Gallardo rolled the ball out to Luke Boden, who quickly played it forward for Mbengue on the wing. The Senegalese midfielder played a long ball to Dwyer, who was calling for it on the far side of the Rowdies’ box. Mbengue sent a beautiful ball that fell right at Dwyer’s feet. Easily bringing it down with his left foot, Dwyer sent it past Fontein and into the back of the net, sealing the victory.

For those who started following Orlando City after it was announced as an MLS expansion side, it might be difficult to understand how there could be a rivalry between two teams that have never played in the same league. They went on to have another I-4 Derby in 2014, which the Lions also won, 6-2. That was followed by a U.S. Open Cup match that Orlando City took by a 4-1 final score line in Sanford.

The two teams haven’t faced off since Orlando City began MLS play, but the hatred between the fan bases still exists. It all stems from that 2013 match-up when 400 Orlando City fans traveled down I-4 to St. Petersburg and the club’s all-time leading goal scorer dressed in purple for the first time.