EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
A new season brings a fresh slate of games to MLS fans starved for action through the winter, but some dates on the calendar are more special than others.
We're talking, of course, about all the rivalry games sprinkled across the calendar. They liven up the league when they arrive, and every club has their own derby foes to froth over.
To get you ready for the grudge matches to come, we've picked out each team's public enemy No. 1 for 2020 (some choices were easier than others) and identified a fixture for what should be some of the most cracking contests of the forthcoming season. Some even fall under the Heineken Rivalry Week umbrella.
There's no easy pick for the Five Stripes' top nemesis, since their quality ticks off plenty of teams. But do you know who best gets under Atlanta’s skin? The Red Bulls. Some might not think it's a tense rivalry, but just wait until game days. And from six league slugfests to date, the Five Stripes have managed a measly two points to go alongside an MLS Cup Playoffs series win in 2018. They will come to Harrison angry May 16.
Chicago Fire FC
There may be a rebrand in Chicago, but the players and the fans weren't mind-erased. They all recall how New England seemed to always bump them from postseason play. Although the Fire lead the regular-season series and have dropped all but one of the last eight clashes, can there be enough vengeance? We'll find out March 7 when they visit Gillette Stadium.
It hasn't taken long for Columbus to learn that Hell is Real, and it comes from about 100 miles southwest. FC Cincy didn’t manage an Ohio derby win during their MLS expansion season, which only puts more emphasis on the 2020 showdowns. The Orange and Blue play host to this year's first meeting in late July, with the Columbus return a month later.
Hell is Real | Birth of a Rivalry, Chapter Two
The Rapids look like they might finally be equipped to bring back winning days, both across the league and against arch rival Real Salt Lake. RSL have broken open what once was a tight rivalry by winning 12 of the last 17 contests. Colorado also haven’t won a Rocky Mountain Cup away tilt since 2007, a drought they'll aim to snap on April 11.
We already talked about the Hell is Real derby from a Cincinnati perspective, but what about the MLS elders in Ohio? The Crew took the first season doubleheader by virtue of an away victory, and will want to keep their state rivals down for as long as they can. It would be twice as nice if new striker Fanendo Adi could contribute to a big win by scoring against his erstwhile employers from downstate.
The last six seasons have seen FC Dallas routinely finish above their Texas rivals in the table, and at least some of the margins were due to their derby domination. After all, FCD are on a 11-2-6 series run across all competitions since 2013. Last season actually saw Houston win its first Lone Star bout in 10 tries. The boys in Dallas can try to squash any further uprising at home May 16.
Like a handful of other clubs, the Black-and-Red have a small ledger of main adversaries. None aggravates D.C., though, quite like the Philadelphia side that lives a two-hour train ride away. Even when they were bad, the Union would still grab some points. It's only gotten worse, and DCU will be aching to shake a six-game league series losing streak when they crash Talen Energy Stadium on March 22.
You've seen the numbers above. The Dynamo have struggled against their nearest nemesis for several years now. The good news is Houston have started to get their home derby act together, stacking last year's BBVA Stadium win over FC Dallas on top of three straight draws. Can they make it two in a row in friendly confines for the first time since 2007? Check back on Aug. 20.
Inter Miami CF
This is the first of two times we essentially need to guess for expansion clubs. There's no telling in which direction the blood will boil hottest when the games start. Still, it seems safest to say the grudge will grow fast when state honors are on the line. Anticipation should play a part in building tension, because Miami don't meet Orlando City until the new kids visit Exploria Stadium on July 20.
We brave a dozen miles of freeway traffic to check in on El Trafico from the Black & Gold's perspective. How will Bob Bradley's men proceed now that they've gotten the Galaxy monkey off their back? And how will they respond to the new headliner in Carson? Knowing them, LAFC will very much want to repeat their home win from last year's playoffs, and then go for a first-ever season sweep "on the road" come Aug. 23.
Just when you thought El Trafico couldn't get any crazier, Chicharito finally landed in MLS wearing Galaxy colors. The club and their fans definitely enjoyed fireworks from the Zlatan vs. Vela show (at least until last year's playoffs). This time, as they say in Hollywood trailers, it's personal. One El Tri superstar against another, in a battle for the City of Angels. Hernandez and the Galaxy will try to rob the Banc for points on May 16.
Chicharito: LA Galaxy are the biggest club in MLS, but I can bring even more titles
The Loons have only been around a few years, so there's still an open audition for their biggest foe. We could talk about Sporting Kansas City or even Colorado, who've tussled with Minnesota in 10 contests across all competitions. But the tastiest potential victory on the schedule may be August's visit from Atlanta United. The team they share an expansion birthday with has outshined Minnesota at collecting silverware, including last summer's U.S. Open Cup final defeat. The Five Stripes have taken four of five meetings, so Minnesota will be extra eager to shed the little brother tag.
The Canadian Classique hadn’t gone the Impact's way for a while until they pulled off a Canadian Championship final upset over Toronto FC last September. New boss Thierry Henry certainly understands the power derived from winning rivalry games, and he'll want to start a new chapter against the Reds. TFC’s playoff series win in 2016 still looms large, too, so there are plenty of narratives to keep track of before meetings on June 13 and Aug. 22.
A first rival tends to come at close range, which means the Music City boys are likely destined to heat it up most with either Atlanta or Cincinnati. My bet is on the Five Stripes because a) they are likely trying to measure up to Atlanta's rapid success, and b) they will be the foe trying to spoil Nashville's MLS opener come Feb. 29. Animosity from day one appears in order.
New England Revolution
Perhaps no MLS team has a larger buffet of rivals to choose from than the Revs. The Fire, the Red Bulls, and even a younger club like Philadelphia all rile the Foxborough faithful. However, none of them have been as consistently frustrating over the past eight seasons as D.C. United. Just last year, the Black-and-Red rescued a pair of draws with late heroics. These two MLS originals will resume hostilities at Gillette Stadium on June 6, with the Audi Field return leg set for Aug. 29.
New York City FC
Are the Cityzens flipping the script on a Hudson River Derby that used to often end in tragedy? As a good start, NYCFC have pretty much owned the Red Bulls at home since that numbing 7-0 loss back in 2016. They still are waiting to gain a foothold at Red Bull Arena, having won just once in nine tries. Their next chance for an away derby heist doesn’t come until Aug. 23.
Hudson River Derby about more than bragging rights for NYCFC, Red Bulls
New York Red Bulls
If the Big Apple battles over the last few years are any indication, the Red Bulls hold on this rivalry is slipping. Chris Armas' side once ruled this fixture, but they've won only one of the last four league dust-ups with the boys from the Bronx. They're also winless in five straight at Yankee Stadium, where this New York story resumes on May 31.
When it comes to squad goals, you best believe these two major items are front and center for the Lions in 2020: make their first postseason and beat Atlanta for the first time. The I-75 bout has been one-sided, with the Five Stripes winning seven of nine meetings and drawing the other two. Orlando City would sure love to reverse fortunes at home, and it just so happens they'll have that chance on April 26.
The theme of revenge is always in the air with a rivalry. The Union have a few possible choices for arch nemesis, but none fits the "We've got to get those guys back!" fervor than NYCFC. The Bronx bunch have won seven of the last eight, including a playoff KO in 2018. Philly's 2020 shot for payback comes quick, at home on April 19.
Here's another no-brainer. The Timbers and their rabid supporters love nothing more than chopping down the Sounders, and boy have they been having a lot of fun. Seattle may be the defending MLS Cup champs, but Portland have practically owned them the last few years. Of course, now that their rivals from the north have one-upped them in the MLS Cup department, look for the Rose City to be rowdy as ever when the Sounders cross the state line for a Cascadia Cup skirmish May 17.
Real Salt Lake
It's difficult to measure the generous amount of pain that Joao Plata, Nick Rimando and Jefferson Savarino collectively doled out to Colorado in recent years. It's time to find some new derby heroes for the Rocky Mountain Cup, though, as that trio has left the RioT. After a home game April 11, RSL travels to Colorado as playoff races get serious for an Aug. 22 bout.
San Jose Earthquakes
While plenty of eyes around the country have pulled away to El Trafico the last few seasons, the Quakes have kept their focus trained on the original Cali Clasico. It showed during the Zlatan era, and San Jose are 5-1-1 in their last seven meetings against the Galaxy. The all-time series lead still goes to LA, but that rock can continue to be pushed up the hill during twin June showdowns.
Yes, the Emerald City crew recently won their second MLS Cup in four years, but they're yet to regain the upper hand in their Cascadia rivalry with Portland. Believe it or not, Seattle last won at home against the Timbers during a 2018 playoff match only to lose on penalty kicks after extra time. In all likelihood, that simply won't do for Brian Schmetzer's charges. They'll look to restore some CenturyLink Field dominance to this matchup when the Timbers visit Aug. 22.
Cascadia clashes in Rose City: Best of Timbers-Sounders rivalry in Portland
Sporting Kansas City
Because of various conference switches, Sporting KC's shortlist of top rivals has changed over the years. Through it all, Real Salt Lake has emerged as one of their saltiest fixtures each season, and not solely because they tend to keep meeting when a lot is on the line. These two clubs play physical, with heavy blows coloring a dead-even rivalry ledger. However, the season will barely be out of the blocks when RSL attempts a March 28 raid at Children's Mercy Park.
Last year's Canadian Championship deciding leg letdown notwithstanding, the Reds have been difficult to beat in Canadian Classiques played at home. You can bet your bottom dollar that Greg Vanney's veteran-driven side has every intention of keeping it that way when the Impact visit town June 13. This time, the derby will be under the extra glare brought on by Thierry Henry's presence in the other dugout.
Because the Caps struggled in 2019, the general Major League Soccer observer might feel they’re the third wheel in the Cascadia rivalry. But from a local point of view, there's plenty of fist clenching to the regional sky, especially toward Seattle. A three-hour drive apart in distance, they've not been so close on the field. Vancouver invades CenturyLink Field with the mission to halt a 0-5-3 series slide on April 18.