Football thrives on friction between clubs but is it inauthentic to create one? In a young league such as MLS the results can be interesting to say the least
This week the LA Galaxy reignited their two rivalries, one on the pitch, and one off it. On the pitch, the Galaxy beat the San Jose Earthquakes 4-2 in the 75th edition of the Cali Clsico. It was the third straight win for a suddenly streaking Galaxy, and they are now undefeated in five and back in the playoff positions. The Galaxy now look poised to make their typical summer surge, and the outlook is starting to feel sunny again in Southern California.
Off the pitch, however, things are a little more fractious. Last week, LAFC, the expansion team set to enter MLS in 2018, hired an artist to paint a street mural in Downtown LA in the latest effort to create brand awareness. A few days later, some Galaxy fans spray-painted over the mural, changing the LA in LAFC to the LA in the middle of Galaxy. This came after the LAFC Regulators a mysterious group of four men who have since deleted their social media accounts spray-painted a Galaxy This is LA billboard, and cut out the bottom right quadrant to keep as a trophy. Since then, several other billboards and murals have been tagged and painted over. It seems that there is a full-blown graffiti war underway in Los Angeles.
It is significant that billboards and murals have become ground zero for these early territorial battles. Since LAFC hasnt played a game yet, its fans have to content themselves with squabbling over marketing campaigns and advertisements. This of course raises the larger question, what does it mean to be a supporter of an MLS club that hasnt played a single game yet?
It means, apparently, creat[ing] an unrivaled sporting culture for the Los Angeles Football Club. That comes from a press statement issued a few weeks ago by The 3252, LAFCs independent supporters union, formed from their six central supporters groups. These six include the Cuervos, District 9 Ultras, Lucky Boys, Relentless, Expo Originals and Black Army 1850, whose mentality is to go against the grain of conformity to become an INDEPENDENT and AUTHENTIC voice for the L.A.F.C. faithful. So far that voice has been limited to expressing itself at every soccer event except an actual LAFC match, from showing up to a U-12 academy game against the Galaxy with flares and drums or creating a tifo for the Mexico v Croatia friendly that had the LAFC logo on it.
It seems that the LAFC supporters are doing everything they can to engender a crosstown rivalry, even before their team has set foot on the pitch. This, of course, is any MLS executives dream. In his 2016 State of the League address, MLS commissioner Don Garber explained, regarding which potential cities to choose for expansion, that rivalries are a big part of our strategy. Our highest rated television events are our rivalry matches. So rivalries are important. The league has backed him up on this statement, creating the twice-annual branded Heineken Rivalry Week, in which every televised matchup is a league-designated rivalry. This can create some awkwardness, like when the league claimed San Jose v the Columbus Crew to be a rivalry. Both teams fanbases balked at the idea.
Part of what makes the rush to market LAFC and the Galaxy as rivals so bizarre is that the Galaxy already have a legitimate, longstanding rival in San Jose. This is a rivalry that dates back to 1996 when both teams entered the league, and is built on the mutual upstate v downstate animosity that underpins the general relationship between the Bay Area and SoCal. It is a rivalry that has been through both the boom and bust eras of MLS, and it is the only rivalry where the face of US soccer Landon Donovan has played for and scored against both teams. In short, it is something worth preserving, not something to be shrugged off as soon as the newest expansion team materializes.
None of this is anyones fault in particular though; it is more of a leaguewide trend that is worth tracking. (A similar dimming happened to the DC United-New York Red Bulls Atlantic Cup rivalry once NYC FC appeared on the scene.) It is hard to blame LAFC supporters for being excited about their emergent club, and it is hard to blame the MLS front office for doing everything they can to boost television ratings as they seek to establish the countrys first stable soccer league. No one wants to see the game denied sunlight just as it seems to be blooming.
But, still, LAFC will enter the league next year, and with it the Cali Clsico will be forever, if only slightly, dimmed. So 2017 is perhaps an especially good year to commemorate and enjoy some of the leagues less-publicized rivalries, with goofy and clunky names like the Trillium Cup and the Heritage Cup. They are throwbacks to a time in MLS when the league was still learning how to walk. As the league becomes more stonefaced and commercialized, some of them may remain, but it is likely the vast majority will fade away. As Curt Onalfo said after the game, These Clasico rivalries, theres lots of emotions weird things happen. Long may that be true.
— Besides the happy problem of too many rivalries to choose from, another sure sign of growth for the league is how many of its players are currently away representing their countries at the U-20 World Cup in South Korea. 16 to be precise, an MLS record. NYC FC certainly missed Yangel Herrera, who is off captaining Venezuela, in their 3-1 loss to Atlanta United on Sunday. They got steamrollered in the midfield, and Herreras replacement, Mikey Lopez, showed why he has only started eight games under Patrick Vieira. With Vieira preferring to keep Pirlo on the bench, NYC FCs midfield suddenly looks bereft of creativity. Now would be a good time for new signing Max Moralez to start making his stamp on the league.
— Real Salt Lake, who have a quartet of their own off in South Korea, arrested their recent slide with a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. It has been an inglorious start to the Mike Petke era in Salt Lake the began by losing five out of eight but green shoots of hope are starting to poke through. Joao Plata finally got off the mark for 2017 with the games lone goal, and the wish must be that he can use this as a springboard for the rest of the season.
— Finally, it would be remiss to mention the Cali Clasico and not the Cascadia Cup, where Seattle hosted Portland in what is widely considered to be the leagues marquee matchup. The game itself was a bit of a damp squib however, with Cristian Roldan grabbing the winner for the Sounders off a corner kick in an otherwise cautious affair. Some pundits had Roldan as a dark horse to squeak into Bruce Arenas national team roster for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers. He did not, and may have to wait for this summers Gold Cup to get his opportunity. Arena did rely heavily on the MLS in general however, with 15 of his 27 selections coming from the domestic league. With a notoriously difficult trip to Mexicos Azteca looming, it will be a good gut check for both the league, and its players.