The Top Five Rivalries in MLS

Welcome to MLS Rivalry Week, part deux! The first time around was so much fun, we thought we’d do it again.

This week we’ll see some classic MLS rivalries take shape once again, including Houston v. FC Dallas, Portland v. Seattle and Real Salt Lake v. Colorado, as well as new ones like Orlando City v. NYCFC. (That’s a rivalry, right? MLS told me so.)

All of these match-ups got me thinking, what are the best rivalries in MLS?

If you were to believe Timbers owner/Twitter antagonist Merritt Paulson, it’s Timbers v. Sounders and it’s not even close. But is he right? I decided to weigh in and give the absolute, 100% definitive final word on the subject. (Or just one man’s opinion.)

Without further ado, here’s my top five:

5. Real Salt Lake v. Sporting Kansas City 

Okay, this one isn’t one of those traditional rivalries, and there may be some recency bias here. But the bad blood in this one goes back to the 2011 preseason, when a rough tackle by SKC midfielder Roger Espinoza sparked a benches clearing, match ending brawl. Fast forward two years and you get to that infamous 2013 MLS Cup game when SKC won 7-6 on penalties. Since then, maybe no two teams have disliked each other more than SKC and RSL.

Case and point, look no further than Benny Feilhaber’s comments from April 2015: 

“I just don’t like them.” “I think they’re snobby. I think they think they’re something special, and they’re not.” If comments like that don’t scream rivalry, then I don’t know what does. It’s not all bad though. “Some individuals I don’t hate,” Feilhaber finally conceded. How nice of him!

But make no mistake, this rivalry isn’t one sided. Former RSL defender Nat Borchers told MLS.com “We don’t like Kansas City just as much as they don’t like us.” RSL fans seem to agree.

Now that RSL and SKC are both in the Western Conference, this rivalry will continue to grow and could become one of the all-time greats.

4. Houston Dynamo v. FC Dallas

The ‘Texas Derby’ as it is known certainly checks all the rivalry boxes: close geographic proximity, heated playoff battles, U.S. Open Cup match-ups, the list goes on.

Everything is bigger in Texas, right? That goes for Texas pride, too, and pride certainly comes in to play here. Being the only two MLS teams in the state, it was inevitable that a heated rivalry would form. Since the rivalry began in 2006, the two sides have split the matchups with twelve wins a piece and eight draws. It doesn’t get any more competitive than that.

Plus, the winner of this game gets a cannon. Like, an actual, real-life weapon of war cannon called “El Capitan.” Not a bad trophy for a rivalry.

El Capitan (photo courtesy of mlssoccer.com)

El Capitan (photo courtesy of mlssoccer.com)

3) LA Galaxy v. San Jose Earthquakes

The “Cali Classico” as it’s called used to have a bit more weight to it, but when you look at historic rivalries, it has to be toward the top. The two teams have won a combined thirteen MLS trophies (seven MLS cups and six Supporters’ Shields) and have produced some of the best playoff matchups the league has seen. Who can forget the 2003 playoff matchup when San Jose came back from a four goal deficit to win 5-4 on aggregate goals? What about the 2001 MLS Cup final where the Quakes beat the Galaxy in extra time? An all-time great.

Unfortunately, the rivalry was put on pause for two years when San Jose moved to Houston in 2006 to become the aforementioned Dynamo. It took the new Quakes a few years to get back to a quality side, but the rivalry has begun to get back its spark of old. In 2013, then former Galaxy player Alan Gordon hammered home a 93rd minute winner that gave the Quakes a dramatic 3-2 win over his old team and defending MLS Cup champions.

What makes a good rivalry even better? Betrayal. A year later Alan Gordon was sent back to the Galaxy where he’d played during two previous stints. Since then, he’s gone on to help the Galaxy win their fifth MLS Cup and bring heartbreak to the Quakes.

The California Clasico (photo courtesy of sjearthquakes.com)

The California Clasico (photo courtesy of sjearthquakes.com)

2) New York Red Bulls v. D.C. United

Another classic going back to MLS beginnings. These two MLS originals have been rivals since day one when the Red Bulls were still the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. During that first year, the teams met in the Eastern Conference semi-finals for the first of many playoff matches to come. The MetroStars lost a heart breaker when Raul Diaz Arce scored a late winner from the penalty spot. D.C. eventually went on to win the inaugural MLS Cup. The rivalry was born.

Fast forward to 2002 and the teams formalized the rivalry with the introduction of the Atlantic Cup trophy. D.C. went on an eight year winning streak from then until 2009, but since 2010 the Red Bulls have taken four of the six series. D.C. leads the all-time series 13-7.

Even though D.C. has historically dominated this series, the rivalry gets its true intensity from post-season play. The two teams have faced off in MLS Cup Playoffs eleven times – more than any other two teams in the league. Once again, D.C. has gotten the best of the Red Bulls in the playoffs with a 7-2-2 match record. It wasn’t until 2014 that the Red Bulls finally beat D.C. in the playoffs.

Oh yeah, and also this:

If you want more of this storied rivalry, MLS put together a pretty slick infographic about it.

1) Portland Timbers v. Seattle Sounders

As much as it pains me to say it, I think Merritt Paulson is right on this one. There’s a long standing rivalry between the cities of Portland and Seattle in general (the cities genuinely don’t like each other), and it manifests itself perfectly on the pitch.

In terms of MLS, this rivalry is relatively young. The Sounders joined the league in 2009, and the Timbers followed suit two years later in 2011. But the roots of this rivalry go back much farther than that. The first iterations of these two teams played their inaugural match in the NASL more than 40 years ago in 1975. Since then, the two sides have met 92 times across all competitions.

Both Seattle and Portland have some of the best supporters in the league. They’re passionate, soccer savvy fans who take soccer about as seriously as anything else. Their tifo game is usually unmatched. (Pay no attention to Seattle’s most recent tifo.) The short three hour drive between the cities on the I-5 makes match-ups an easy trip for supporters to make.

On the stat sheet, Seattle have a slight edge since both sides joined MLS, with seven MLS wins to Portland’s six (if we include Portland winning both legs in the 2013 playoffs). However, there’s one glaring stat column where the Timbers have the edge: MLS Cups. Despite the Sounders’ success since joining the league, they’ve never been able to win it all. They’ve won the Supporters’ Shield once and the U.S. Open Cup four times, but never MLS Cup. It had to be extra painful for Sounders fans to see the Timbers raise one first.

Honorable Mention

New York Red Bulls v. New York City FC

Before all of New York comes yelling at me, I know this one has all the makings of a potentially great rivalry. It’s just simply too new to be in my top five. But, if NYCFC can continue to bring in big name signings and RBNY keep up their historic success, this could easily find itself near the top in the coming years.

Of course there are other great rivalries in MLS as well that just missed my top five: Colorado v. Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC v. Montreal, Sporting Kansas City v. Houston, USA v. Canada. I could keep going. But, thankfully MLS has put together a handy rivalry overview guide. Be sure to check it out. It’s pretty cool.

You can catch MLS Rivalry Week starting tonight at 7:30pm ET and continuing all through Sunday.