As a relatively young club, our search for in-state (and regional) rivalries has been a slow process. Our time in USL Pro provided no real regional foes to stir the imagination. Wilmington and Charleston were good rivals on the field, but too far away to create anything significant. A lot of respect goes to the supporters that made that long drive a few times. VSI Tampa Bay FC had a one-year run in USL Pro, long enough to prove Plant City isn’t ready for minor league soccer.
Major League Soccer has made rivalries a cornerstone of its MLS 2.0 reboot. Understanding international footballing culture provides multiple blueprints for some of the most heated rivalries in the sports world. Galatasaray vs. Fenerbahce, Celtic FC vs. Rangers, West Ham vs. Milwall—these are the kinds of games that supporters live for and local police forces train for.
MLS has done its best to recreate a North London Derby with teams scattered across the expanses of the American landscape. Portland vs. Seattle, two clubs with long legacies dating back to the NASL, easily comes to mind, but Dallas vs. Houston, San Jose vs. LA Galaxy, and DC United vs. New York Red Bulls have all cultivated passionate rivalries over the years.
While we recently looked at Orlando City’s potential MLS rivals, where do our regional rivalries stand as we enter this new era?
Tampa Bay Rowdies: Easily the most intense rivalry Orlando has had so far. Recent events in the last I-4 Derby match in Tampa showed the intensity that this match-up brings out in some supporters. The proximity and the already established college football rivalry between Orlando’s UCF and Tampa’s USF made this one easy to get going. The problem was that it never really heated up properly. Orlando presently holds a 6-0-0 advantage over our Gulf Coast neighbors. Tampa’s support never seemed as into it as Orlando City’s fans were. The match-up often came off as contrived, unfortunately.
Tampa Bay really had nothing to win by matching up with their then-third division opponents, and often treated the games as a workout, since some of the games came off-season for the Rowdies. As Orlando City has now leapfrogged Tampa Bay into MLS, it will be curious to see how the Rowdies treat future meeings. At this point, it seems the I-4 Derby has been put to rest.
Rivalry Status: The embers are still smoking, but no flare-ups yet.
Miami: It’s hard to write anything about this match-up since, as of right now, Miami’s MLS team only consists of David Beckham and a dream. Major League Soccer has given him their blessing for founding a team in South Florida, with visions of a future Florida Derby between Orlando and Miami. Orlando City’s supporters were ready to book weekends of soccer in the sun and South Beach club hopping and sunbathing, but alas, Miami’s team has yet to materialize.
Stadium issues have been the major hangup, and MLS has rightfully been stubborn about its insistence in a centralized downtown venue. Miami needs to be on the MLS map, but due to the failures of Miami Fusion FC, it has to be done exactly right.
Rivalry Status: Smoke, no fire.
Ft. Lauderdale Strikers: A team with a similar past and present to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Strikers are competing in the new NASL after memorable years in the old NASL. Honestly, I have always been surprised we haven’t had more matches with the Strikers, but none come to mind right now. My best guess is NASL’s funky Spring-Fall split season might have as much to do with this as anything else. The Miami Beckham FC project looms large on the Strikers’ horizon and could push the Strikers to the brink of extinction, or, if MLS Miami never materializes, the Strikers could be a dark horse for MLS themselves. Who knows, the South Florida sports market is a strange place indeed.
Rivalry Status: Smoke on the horizon… a very far off horizon.
Jacksonville Armada FC: The new kids on the block, so to speak, the Armada will begin competing this year in the NASL. There has been a nice buzz around this team so far, and they seem to be saying all the right things to draw in a nice fan base in a pretty decent soccer city in Jacksonville. Orlando City icon and former captain, goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo, was their first player signing. It will be interesting to see how this club develops.
As much as Orlando had a lot to gain in beating teams like the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Armada might want to signal their arrival by trying to shoot a couple of broadsides Orlando City’s way.
Rivalry Status: Kids playing with matches so far.
Atlanta: Until the Miami Beckhams can get their act together, it seems Orlando’s best rivalry will be an eight-hour drive north. Unlike the South Florida venture, Atlanta is set and ready to go in 2017. As the preeminent Southern city, Atlanta will be a fun away trip for the supporters and a fun regional rivalry. At this point however, we have so few connections with the central Georgia city that it’s hard to get too excited about a passionate rivalry. Part of building a rivalry is having a few heated contests, a couple of heart-breaking 90th minute goals, and a nice collection of unwarranted red cards. So, as of now, the Atlanta-Orlando derby is a work in progress, but I’m ready to bet a basket of Central Florida’s finest citrus against a bushel of peaches with a future Atlanta MLS SB Nation writer.
Rivalry Status: Building the bonfire, looking for the gasoline.
When MLS granted our city a franchise, it certainly pictured Orlando City, Miami, and Atlanta lining up for a yearly Southeastern round robin in much in the same way Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle have created a nice collection of match-ups for the yearly Cascadia Cup. Miami’s franchise is in doubt (depending on who you listen to), meaning until something materializes our best regional rivalry is out of state.
Three NASL teams in Florida all provide fascinating sets of match-ups, and I, for one, am hoping for some interesting U.S. Open Cup draws in the future. Unfortunately, until NASL brings up its level of play, I don’t see too many I-4 Derby-like match-ups yet. If Beckham can’t get a stadium deal done, I’d look at all NASL teams in Florida as dark horses for future MLS expansion. As for this season, it looks like we should plan on caravanning to Houston or Washington, D.C. if anybody is up for an away day.
Editor’s note: This article was edited to move Miguel Gallardo’s picture to the Jacksonville Armada section.