DC United's Ben Olsen asserts Atlantic Cup remains relevant: "I still respect the rivalry in a big way"
What ever happened to the Atlantic Cup?
The matchup between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls – once Major League Soccer’s premier rivalry – has taken a back seat in recent years, overtaken by the likes of the Cascadia clash between Portland and Seattle.
As of late, even the California Clasico – the hotly contested match-up between LA and San Jose – has received a bit more attention than the Atlantic Cup. To many, the fixture just doesn’t have the same intensity it used to.
Ben Olsen is not one of those people.
"I still respect the rivalry in a big way,” United’s head coach told MLSsoccer.com after training on Wednesday. "To me, it’s still the oldest [rivalry] that this league has. I think it’s had some amazing storylines throughout the years and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of it all.”
Olsen, who’ll once again face former teammate and current Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke on Saturday (7 pm ET, MLS Live), speaks with a particular intensity when it comes to the Red Bulls. As a player, he lived through the good – several convincing playoff victories – and the bad – "there was a stretch there when they were pretty dominant,” Olsen said, "and it wasn’t a lot of fun to play them.”
As a coach, Olsen was at the helm for what was perhaps the most memorable moment in the rivalry’s history: United's 1-0 victory in the second leg of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. The matchup, played a day late after the original date was controversially snowed out, featured multiple red cards, a dramatic turn of events centering around a called-back penalty-kick goal and a late winner from United midfielder Nick DeLeon.
Still, even Olsen tempers his enthusiasm for the rivalry with a dose of reality. MLS’ other rivalries have leapfrogged D.C. and New York's for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which are financial. Ticket sales and television ratings have followed Seattle and Portland through all of their matchups, while the Atlantic Cup has languished, in certain ways.
Perhaps MLS’ oldest rivalry is just getting old?
"I think nationally, maybe, it has [lost a bit of luster]” said Olsen. "I think there’s just more teams that are closer to each other that have that same proximity that we do to New York, that makes it a bit more special, more heated, more crosstown.
"The whole Pacific Northwest has that. Before all of that, though, there was New York-D.C. Other games never seemed to have that energy in their fan bases that New York-D.C. had.”
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If the rivalry is largely geographical – RFK Stadium is a mere four-hour drive from Red Bull Arena – there’s a chance it will become even less of a must-see fixture when New York City FC debut in 2015. To United’s head coach, it’s a non-issue.
"I think we’ll always have the history with New York,” he reflected. "Will it change a little bit? I’m sure that rivalry will be up there with the Portland-Seattle-type games now that the league and nation has been fixated on."
"I think it’s good. It’s great stuff for the league. The more energy and rivalries you can create around the country, that’s a great thing."