Geography, more often than not, forges soccer's deepest rivalries. Derby matchups serve up a strong cocktail of regional bragging rights, lasting memories and, at times, animosity. Teams and fan bases love little more than one-upping their neighbor.
But there are also rivalries created through merit and respect, like the one Philadelphia Union and LAFC resume Wednesday evening when beginning their 2023 Concacaf Champions League semifinal series with a leg-one matchup at Subaru Park (9 pm ET | FS1, TUDN).
Don’t just take our word for it, either.
“The LA Galaxy rivalry will always be there, and it was always going to be a rivalry for us,” LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington detailed to MLSsoccer.com. “But I think what this rivalry brings with Philly, it is more of that organic growth.
“It happened not just because of the places in the standings and what have you, but also you have these moments culminating in MLS Cup  and in years past where we've had great battles against them. I'm sure, despite the fact the competition is different, it's a high-stakes game. We're really looking forward to the test that Philly presents to our group.”
The respect is mutual from Union sporting director Ernst Tanner, the German executive who’s been stateside since 2018.
“It’s definitely a rivalry and we are honored because we have different conditions than LAFC,” Tanner explained to MLSsoccer.com. “We are arguably not a superclub as they are considered, and you see that reflected in all levels more or less. We basically stand for blue-collar and they stand for everything LA.
“It's a natural rivalry anyways, and I know that very well from over in Europe. When I worked for 1860 and you played Bayern in the Bundesliga, there was nothing better than that. Here it's different because they're on the other coast, so far away and playing mainly in a different conference. It's a different kind of rivalry, but it's a good one. We have a season where we meet at least three times, which even emphasizes on that. I really enjoy it.”
Wednesday’s game is the first of two CCL chapters between these title-chasing clubs, as they’ll head to BMO Stadium for a leg-two decider on May 2. The winner advances to this year’s CCL final, to be played in late May and early June against either Liga MX’s Tigres UANL or Club León. They are just 360 minutes total, plus the possibility of penalty kicks and/or extra time, away from a continental crown and a 2025 FIFA Club World Cup ticket.
Now, framing everything is the not-too-distant memory of when Philly and LAFC last met: an early-November 2022 MLS Cup that’s forever in league lore. From Gareth Bale’s 128th-minute header – Thorrington said “it's certainly my all-time moment in MLS” – to John McCarthy’s off-the-bench penalty kick heroics, it’s hard to imagine a more Hollywood-esque ending.
Occasions ripe with entertainment value and consequence have become commonplace between these clubs, with only a tiebreaker giving LAFC last year’s Supporters’ Shield title over Philly after they both finished the regular season on 67 points. MLS initially uses most wins to settle even footing, an area LAFC (21) led in, whereas most other professional soccer leagues first turn to goal differential, an area where Philly (+46) had the edge.
Another unforgettable chapter occurred in March 2020, the last regular-season game before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down MLS for essentially four months. The 3-3 thriller was an early-season, coming-of-age game for Philadelphia after LAFC won the 2019 Supporters’ Shield, highlighted by a 40-yard free kick golazo from center back Jakob Glesnes.
As these clubs have fought to and fro, they’ve achieved success with different approaches and financial profiles.
“You have two very different models in how you succeed in MLS,” Thorrington said. “We also have some things in common. We have two of the brightest, best, young coaches in the league – two Americans as well. But we have very different models not just in how the teams play, but in where we've allocated resources in trying to build sustainable success in the league.
“Since, if I have it right, we joined the league – and I was playing in the league when Philly joined, but I think everyone speaks about their more recent success – we're two teams that if you look at our records since 2018, we've been near the best.”
The coaches Thorrington referenced are Philly’s Jim Curtin and LAFC’s Steve Cherundolo, who have both been floated as possible future US men’s national team managers. They’re overseeing some top-end players in MLS, too, ranging from Philly goalkeeper Andre Blake and midfielder Dániel Gazdag to LAFC forwards Carlos Vela and Dénis Bouanga.
And while these clubs often use different formations – LAFC prefer a 4-3-3, whereas Philly opt for a 4-4-2 diamond – their tactical identities are more cousins than frenemies. They both can attack in waves, use counter-pressing defensive measures, call on difference-makers to make plays and have depth to drive the knife deeper or claw their way back into a contest.
So, who might have the edge in the series? Tanner thinks it could come down to Philly hosting the first leg, providing a window to create a favorable aggregate score.
“We almost never played at home against them and that could be a completely different situation for both teams,” Tanner said. “I'm sure they're looking forward to that challenge as much as we're looking forward to having them in our building.
“We're chasing better results so far [in MLS] and they are in top form, that's for sure. But at the same time, we have a good team as well, we have a slightly different approach. It's what makes everything really spicy.”
As Tanner noted, LAFC are the last undefeated team (5W-0L-3D) in MLS this year and have a league-leading 2.25 points per game, hardly missing a beat from last year’s double-winning group. Philly, contrastingly, are a so-so 3W-4L-2D in league play while managing the wear and tear of juggling CCL.
All that might go out the window, with LAFC certainly not short on confidence before hosting the all-decisive second leg early next week.
“There's not a game LAFC goes into where we're not doing everything we can to win,” Thorrington said. “Now, does that mean because of schedule and what have you that there will be rotation? Yes. But the understanding here is that rotation, it would be an inaccurate reflection of what we feel about our depth and our players that can be called upon to say it weakens us. … The idea is that when there is rotation, the standard doesn't drop.”
What is certain: MLS will send a fitting representative to this year’s CCL final, one that’s hoping to keep the regional mantle away from Liga MX after Seattle Sounders FC’s historic triumph in 2022. And there’s history facing both clubs, as Philly (exited vs. Club América) are in their second CCL semifinal in three years and LAFC (lost to Tigres UANL) are chasing a second CCL final berth in four years.
It’s showtime, first on the banks of the Delaware River before heading to LA’s Exposition Park neighborhood.
“It's the matchup many wanted after last November and sort of all of last season,” Thorrington said. “It's exciting to see two of the top teams in our league competing for the region's biggest trophy.”
Added Tanner: “The rivalry we share is a very good thing. We appreciate each other and we appreciate how both clubs are building.”