It's no coincidence that the MLS Is Back Tournament at Walt Disney World will kick off with a match between Inter Miami CF and Orlando City SC. Major League Soccer decision-makers purposely pit the two sides against each other for the July 8 match, whereas a random draw determined the rest of the tournament's group stage games.
The league claimed in a prepared statement that it came down to wanting to feature the two home-state clubs in the opening match. Still, anyone familiar with the league's history of manufacturing rivalries knows what's going on: MLS is trying to stir shit up.
You can't blame the league: Sports rivalries are good for business. They raise the stakes and add drama and traditions to what would otherwise be an ordinary matchup. And don't forget about the petty antics and endless shit-talking.
MLS commissioner Don Garber admitted during a State of the League address that the league factors in potential rivalries when awarding franchises to cities, saying, "Rivalries are a big part of our strategy." There's even a Heineken-sponsored week on the MLS schedule dedicated to rivalries — some better than others.
The best rivalries take time to develop. You never want them to feel forced like those tired shoving matches at boxing weigh-ins meant to drum up interest in a fight. Inter Miami and Orlando City have never played each other. And when they do square off, there's no steadfast rule that says players and fans must feud just because they're both located in Florida. (See the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays or the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.)
Miami also hasn't exactly been known for its heated sports rivalries in recent years. Locals can still get it up for the annual Miami Hurricanes and Florida State Seminoles football showdown. Yet other feuds such as the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets and the Miami Heat and New York Knicks have fizzled out, whether it's because one team became irrelevant or both have.
Why will Inter Miami and Orlando City matchup buck the trend? It might not.
Still, soccer is a different animal. Rivalries are a significant part of the sport's culture. They don't only take place on the field — where winners sometimes walk away with rivalry trophies, or in the cases of FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo, a cannon — but also in the stands in the form of chants and banners.
"I think rivalries start with the atmosphere in the stands," says Seba Moraga, cofounder of Inter Miami supporters club Vice City 1896. "Once the players walk on the field and realize the [intense] atmosphere is coming from both ends, they'll be inclined to play a little harder and go into tackles harder. And they'll look forward to the games."
Nobody knows what the crowds will look like at Inter Miami games, but a contingent of about 100 local fans made the drive to the MLS All-Star game in Orlando last year even though they didn't have a player to root for. In March, an estimated 300 Inter Miami fans flew cross-country to Los Angeles for the club's opening match. As for the crowds at Orlando City matches, the club finished seventh out of 24 teams in attendance during the 2019 season.
There's hope that both fanbases will be well-represented whenever the two clubs square off in the future. (It's worth noting that fans aren't allowed to attend games during the MLS Is Back Tournament.) Orlando City's Exploria Stadium and the temporary Inter Miami CF Stadium in Fort Lauderdale are separated by only a three-hour drive.
Sensing the potential for a rivalry, fans have already started workshopping nicknames. The Turnpike Derby has been thrown out there as well as the Sunshine Clasico and El Tropico. Ed Serrano (AKA Uncle Ed), vice president of Inter Miami supporters club Southern Legion, says they also already have a song ready for Orlando City: "You're a Small Club After All," a parody of the Disney ride earworm.
And yet, some Inter Miami and Orlando City supporters who insist they haven't given much thought to the potential rivalry. Moraga says Orlando City is "not the main focus for us like we are for them." And when asked about Inter Miami, Erin Russell, chairperson of Orlando City supporters club the Ruckus, says, "We don't think of Inter Miami or the fans at all." And what does she believe it will take for Inter Miami-Orlando City to turn into a rivalry? "That's a question for the club," Russell says. "Our job resides in the terraces, and in the terraces, we have no rival."
Indeed, the fans can only do so much. The clubs need to do their part as well, which could prove to be the biggest obstacle. Orlando City has yet to make the playoffs in its five MLS seasons. And some seem to think there is an Orlando City-Atlanta United rivalry brewing, but Orlando City is 0-6-2 against its Georgia neighbor. And in Inter Miami's case, it lost the only two matches it played before the season was suspended due to the pandemic.
Neither team was among the favorites to win the MLS Cup before the season got derailed, and neither is a favorite to win the MLS Is Back Tournament. Moreover, there are no bragging rights until the clubs have a couple of games against each other under their belts.
It could be a while before the bad blood develops — if it ever does.
Inter Miami CF vs. Orlando City. Airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 8, via ESPN and ESPN Deportes.
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