CHICAGO – The roots of a rivalry can range from obvious – a second club showing up in the same city or state – to elaborate. While some rivalries develop out of pure geographical bragging rights, most others are made out of game-worn animosity and high stakes.
When Minnesota United FC visit the Chicago Fire for the first time on Saturday night (8:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE), it could be the birth of a new Midwestern rivalry. While the geography between the Fire and the Loons is somewhat close, players and supporters alike said that this is one of those potential rivalries that might need some time to grow, particularly with the teams being in different conferences.
“I think it’s going to have to develop over time,” said Rudy Gomez, a Fire fan and a former director of ops for supporters' group Section 8. “We’re only going to play them once a year, so unless that one game is extremely significant or such a blowout I guess on either end, that would turn up the heat on the rivalry. But I think the way it probably will be is it will take time.
"If there’s ever conference realignment or whatever the case may be, that would heat it up. When you’re going to get a good couple hundred people from either side traveling to either city a couple times a year I think that’s going to stir the pot when it comes to that rivalry.”
Chicago midfielder Arturo Alvarez has played a part in two of the league’s bigger local rivalries, the California Clasico and Texas Derby, and he agrees.
“I think it’ll be great if Chicago happens to build a new rivalry with Minnesota,” Alvarez said. “We’re looking forward to this game. It’s a must-win for us. I think we have to go back to our winning ways and that’s what we’re going to have to do.
“...I’ve been part of some good battles, some good wins, some bad losses, but yeah I think it goes down to wanting to be the best team representing that state. I remember when I was young coming into the league with San Jose and LA, guys were just talking mess to each other, it’s just different.”
A traveling contingent somewhere between 200-300 Loons fans are expected in Bridgeview and Section 8 isn’t being hostile, staging events like a night-before party, a supporters match, and a Rock Against Racism concert pregame. As such, don’t expect the Midwestern rivalry of Chicago and Minnesota to turn into New York or Cascadia levels of hatred right away.
“That’s a different type of animosity and rivalry there, the proximity of just a couple hours and boom you’re there,” Gomez said. “Here it’s not distances, but moments that are usually the ones that make it the most significant.”
Fire midfielder Dax McCarty was in New York for the beginning of the Hudson River Derby and saw some of its early seminal moments before joining the Fire this season. Because of that, he knows firsthand that building rivalries is a process.
“It absolutely develops over time,” McCarty said. “I don’t think any rivalry is born in the first or second game. I think there needs to be history, I think there needs to be animosity, I think there needs to be incidents that happen on the field that really stoke the fire, stoke the flames so to speak.
“There’s no recipe for what makes a good rivalry. It just needs to be organic, it needs to happen on the field, it needs to happen with fans in the stands. So that’ll all happen in due time. If it’s worthy of being a rivalry, it will happen.”
While these clubs aren’t in the same city or state, the expanse of the Midwest means they are in fact among each other’s closest geographical foes.
Upon joining MLS, Minnesota became the second-closest club in proximity to Chicago, behind the Fire’s oldest rival, Columbus Crew SC. Standard driving directions put about 362 miles between Toyota Park and Columbus’ MAPFRE Stadium, and about 415 miles from the Fire’s home to Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. Trips to Sporting Kansas City's Children Mercy Park or Toronto FC's BMO field on the other side of the border are the next closest for the Fire.
For Minnesota United, Chicago are the nearest geographic opponent, followed by Sporting KC.
“I think geography plays into rivalry,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said recently. “Now, I think rivalries are organic and they change through circumstance over time. I would expect that over time we’ll have a nice rivalry with Minnesota. How that plays out, because we’ll for the foreseeable future only play once a year, will be interesting.
"But I expect they’ll travel a lot of people to our game … and we’ll do the same next year. Geography can play a part in it, but just dramatic games and dramatic moments lend themselves to rivalry – usually around the playoff chase or in the playoffs.”
Fire captain Juninho said that when he arrived in Chicago he was told about Columbus being the most important rival, but pointed back to his time in LA to signal that rivalries can be born from any or all of proximity (Chivas USA), pride (San Jose Earthquakes), and postseason stakes (Seattle Sounders).
“I think this kind of rivalry you build it up with the times you play against a team, the times you beat them, the times they beat you, what position of the year, who knocks somebody out,” Juninho said. “After that it can build something from those situations."
Gomez also pointed to high-stakes playoff meetings being important in developing rivalries that fans care about. Gomez said he still remembers the rage people felt a decade ago whenever they saw a New England Revolution jersey, particularly one with “Twellman" across the back.
“It seemed like each team would knock each other out each playoffs,” Gomez said. “From like 2005 to 2009 it was Revs-Fire were a sure thing in the playoffs at some point and sometimes the ramifications were huge and the rivalry was intense.”
What happens on the field is, of course, important, but McCarty said the passion that comes from the stands is also very crucial in creating a rivalry. Saturday will provide an idea at least in that regard of just what kind of potential there is between Chicago and Minnesota.
“The most important part aspect of an actual rivalry is if the fans care just as much, if not more than the players,” McCarty said. “In New York you can tell the fans really care a lot. It’s a rivalry, it’s a derby game, it’s so close. Those are the different aspects of a rivalry that really make it one that’s going to be historic.
"Seattle and Portland have the the animosity, they have the history, they have the proximity to each other, all those elements make for a great rivalry. I guess it remains to be seen if Chicago and Minnesota can make one on the field.”