EDITOR'S NOTE: MLS Classics, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes will be re-airing some of the league's best rivalry matches as part of Heineken Rivalry Week. Check out the full schedule.
I nearly turned this Heineken Rivalry Week bit into another Best XI exercise, but then I realized anything I came up with would be a poor imitation of two throwaway Doyle tweets fired off between Mezcal Negronis.
That sort of niche genius comes only via years of mixing it up in the Big Soccer message boards and r/MLS comments. I never was much of a Big Soccer guy, but I’ve got a pretty good feel for what might send a pitchfork-wielding horde into my Twitter mentions. Power rankings? For MLS rivalries? I’m practically begging for abuse. Seriously, please give me some laughs.
My criteria are loose and fast. It’s some amalgamation of supporter passion, history, intensity/competitiveness on the field, star power, knack for the unpredictable and, if we’re lucky, absurd and national buzz/narratives. When in doubt, I went with the rivalry I’d attend if both games were on the same day at the same time. Basically, it’s all just my opinion, and it’s based on the here and now, not a historical celebration, which is another column entirely.
Just know I love every single one of these matches. I put these rankings together with no intent to slight your club, your city, your supporters or your rivalry’s rich history (or lackthereof). I’m a neutral, even though I’m sure some of you will argue that, too, and I hope I don’t hurt any feelings out there.
1. El Trafico
I wrestled with this one. I really did. Without Zlatan, Cascadia tops this ranking. But, my God, Zlatan. My God, the undeniable absurdity of these games.
El Trafico has been bat-#$%@ crazy from the jump, with Ibrahimovic’s exploits ushering in so much immediate chaos that now we just expect pure, unadulterated lunacy whenever the two Los Angeles clubs meet. That they keep delivering is a testament to the instant nature of the rivalry, the intensity of the fanbases and the players and coaches on both sides.
Shot (the Galaxy’s comeback in the very first match). Chaser (last year’s nutty playoff meeting that saw LAFC finally get over the hump). For neutrals, at this moment, I don’t think any MLS rivalry is bigger. If I could go to one match, even with Zlatan gone, it’d be El Trafico at the Banc. You just get the feeling that something memorable is in the cards every single game.
Should El Trafico or Cascadia be No. 1?
2. Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers
I’ve never been to a Cascadia match, and it’s one of my deep regrets. No MLS rivalry has more on-field history, because the rivalry predates the league by a couple decades. The pageantry, the history, the mutual hatred … it all feels natural, like the soccer world in the Pacific Northwest was meant to be this way.
If I had to choose a venue, I’d go in Portland, where it feels like the history is bubbling up through every crack and crevice in Providence Park. If I were truly blessed, it’d be another classic playoff matchup like the one we got back in 2018. When these teams play, it just seems like stupid/dramatic things are bound to happen.
tears up yellow card, just for kicks
3. Canadian Classique
You want hate? Montreal and Toronto have been stoking it for hundreds of years. This is political. It’s cultural. It’s a sporting tradition, whether soccer or hockey or the CFL. Go watch the highlights from the 2015 and 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. Both sides revel in heaping misery on the other.
Honestly, it doesn’t even matter if one team or the other misses the playoffs. It’s almost impossible to dull the edges of this rivalry when the Canadian Championship basically guarantees a yearly high-stakes matchup and the hard feelings between the cities and the club’s fanbases go back generations.
4. Hudson River Derby
There’s just something about piling off the PATH Train or New York City subway with supporters from both sides of this intracity rivalry. The game feels big, and it’s hard to feel big in this city.
The Hudson River Derby has heroes (Bradley Wright-Phillips). It has iconic moments (the Red Wedding). It has a narrative (Red Bulls dominance turned begrudging respect). The only thing it’s missing is a trophy — reportedly in the works — and some playoff history.
5. Hell is Real
It’s only a couple years old, but it has all the ingredients to join MLS’s marquee matchups.
First, the proximity and the natural rivalry between the two cities. This game is for Ohio, and the name is organic and badass. Second, it was born via upset, by then-USL side FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup back in 2017. Third, the matches have been dramatic and both environments fit for the occasion. The supporters don’t need to be convinced. They’re the ones doing the convincing. They made it, and they’ll build it brick by brick.
This is a rising rivalry stock, especially as FCC improve — they have to improve, right? — on the field.
6. California Clasico
El Trafico stole a hefty chunk of the spotlight — and the arrival of Sacramento may further dilute things — but there’s still plenty of life in this rivalry, even if these teams haven’t met in the playoffs since Robbie Keane ended the Goonies magical season back in 2012.
You can’t argue with the history and geography here, whether it’s the Earthquakes’ historic MLS Cup win in 2001, Landon Donovan’s famous switcheroo or the natural wariness between SoCal and NorCal. More than 20 years of hatred doesn’t go away just because LAFC set up shop a couple miles up the road from Galaxy HQ.
I consider a Cali Clasico at Stanford Stadium to be an MLS bucket list item. I need to make it there before Chris Wondolowski, an icon in this rivalry if there ever was one, hangs them up.
7. Atlantic Cup
Before NYCFC arrived on the scene, it would be unthinkable that this game would get the midweek treatment for Heineken Rivalry Week. That is now the reality.
No original MLS rivalry has as much history, as many memorable moments and as much collective contempt between the supporters, but when Ben Olsen says “to some players in there it is just another game” ahead of what used to the THE match for both clubs? Well, you’ve got to come to terms that what used to be is no more.
Still, I can’t let go. Maybe it’s the lore. Maybe it’s the playoff series I covered back in 2012. Maybe it’s RFK nostalgia. For the time being, the Atlantic Cup seems on the brink of a Rivalry Power Rankings free fall. That’s too bad. For everything there is a season, I guess.
8. Atlanta United vs. Orlando City
Impossible, I’d argue, when the Pettiness Meter is off the charts, in large part to Josef Martinez.
- Exhibit A: His treatment of poor Joe Bendik and the City supporters when he set the single-season goalscoring record at Exploria Stadium.
- Exhibit B: Orlando supporters’ boo-bird treatment of Brad Guzan and Martinez at last year’s All-Star Game.
- Exhibit C: This viral shade via Martinez’s Instagram story after the Five Stripes won a U.S. Open Cup semifinal in Orlando last year.
That’s just savage stuff from a man who previous called Orlando City “my kids.”
The supporters certainly care, invested in either continuing the domination or finally breaking through. They’ve got the shenanigans going all the way back to preseason 2017 to show for it, too. This one might be disrupted by the arrival of Nashville, Miami and Charlotte, but the foundation’s been laid if the players, supporters and clubs can keep the emotions high.
9. Texas Derby
The battle for El Capitan is in a little bit of a holding pattern thanks to the Dynamo’s inconsistent fortunes and Dallas’ rise under Oscar Pareja. Hard for there to be too much vitriol when Houston have just two wins since 2013. This rivalry needs more meaningful matches and opinion-splitting protagonists to rise up my rankings.
Big question for the future: How will Austin’s arrival affect the rivalry? Will the duopoly remain intact or will the new boys force a shift to a Texas Cup triumvirate? For the time being, this rivalry is livelier on social media than on the field or in the stands.
10. Rocky Mountain Cup
Please forgive me. Someone had to be at the bottom. More room to rise, I say.
This one started with a bang — Pablo Mastroeni’s infamous confrontation with then-Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts and the trade that saw Kyle Beckerman, once a target of RSL’s supporters, traded from Colorado to Utah — but it’s been so one-sided for the last decade that much of that early spice is dormant.
The Claret & Cobalt have won the Cup 11 times in the past 13 seasons. They have lost just three of the past 18 matchups (11 wins), dropped a humiliating 6-0 on the Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in 2018 and won both games last season, though it took two goals from the 96th minute on for RSL to get the job done. I’ll take that — and Robin Fraser’s arrival in Colorado — as a sign that this one is going to get more intriguing as the stakes get higher.