Nani vs Pizarro - 2020 - designed image

Orlando City, Inter Miami players talk up potential rivalry ahead of MLS is Back Tournament opener

Not since 2001 with the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny has there been a competitive intra-Florida match in Major League Soccer. 

That all changes Wednesday. 

Orlando City SC and expansion side Inter Miami CF will face off to kick off the MLS is Back Tournament (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVAS). Expectations are high for the game in the Group Stage presented by Heineken, not just because it'll be the first MLS match in four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but because it just may be the inaugural match of a long-time rivalry.

“It’s definitely a rivalry between the fans and that’s how all rivalry starts," Orlando forward Tesho Akindele told MLSsoccer.com via phone. "As soon as we step on the field with them, we’ll feel it. Then the more we play against them, the rivalry will build." 

The feeling is mutual on the part of an Inter Miami team looking to make a mark in its first season in MLS.

“Part of the reason I came to this organization, I wanted to be part of history," Inter Miami captain and goalkeeper Luis Robles said. "I wanted to be part of something special. To have an opportunity to help lead the team out on the field to not only hope to lead the team to our first ever win, but hopefully our first win against our rivals Orlando City.”

Robles was a key player in the Hudson River Derby since the very first game between the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC in 2015, with the fans that packed Red Bull Arena and Yankee Stadium adding another layer of animosity between the two teams.

"A huge part of [the Hudson River Derby] required supporters and a passion that only fans can be," Robles said. "When you feel that energy translated to the field, you get a sense that these games mean a little bit more. When we play this game, that’s an element that won’t be there. So you look down the road and things progress that one day when fans will be in stadiums again, that will be massive."

Akindele agreed that when it's safe for fans to return to stadiums, another key ingredient will be added to the mix.

"It’ll be such a cool moment to play [Miami in front of fans one day], in front of The Wall," he said. "They’ll be calling them Ft. Lauderdale FC, it’ll be funny.”

Still, there is plenty riding on Wednesday's game.

Orlando City and Miami are both searching for their first win of the season after just two matches. Miami delivered a few encouraging performances but came away with losses. They're led by Designated Players Rodolfo Pizarro and Matias Pellegrini, as well as MLS veterans like Robles and Wil Trapp

“We respect that it’s a difficult game," Orlando midfielder Nani said. "It’s a very exciting game, everyone wants to see what’s going to happen. [In their first two games] I saw a good team. They’re building a strong team with good players."

Orlando, meanwhile, are undergoing a transition of their own. Since joining the league in 2015, they have yet to make the playoffs and have cycled through a number of head coaches, the latest of which is the well-respected Oscar Pareja. 

Pareja is known best for his time with FC Dallas where he won trophies and turned the club into one of the league's best in developing young players. His hire was met with widespread positivity, perhaps signaling a new chapter in Orlando's young history. 

Kicking off the MLS is Back Tournament as well as a potential rivalry, Wednesday is sure to be one that goes down in the record books. 

“I’m very excited to finally be able to play after so many months," Pizarro said. "Being able to play [Orlando] will be very special. We want to win all of the games and we want to do that in this matchup.”

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