Aggressive MLS expansion hinges on global football’s bread and butter: The derby day

Having flown in from Europe that day, Gareth Bale’s body clock read as he stood in front of more than 22,000 fans at Banc of California Stadium before the July 8 4am between ESPN broadcasters Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman El Trafico — the infamous derby between Bale’s newly adopted LAFC and LA Galaxy — the five-time Champions League winner explained why he uprooted his family for a 12-month foray into Major League Soccer in Southern California.

“This is a growing league,” said Bale, eyes weary, black Henrik Stenson sunglasses at the neck of a white long sleeve. “The best preparation [for a World Cup] is to play games. I would like [make] my stamp – help LAFC win a trophy.”

Wales men’s national team captain Bale recently organized his home country’s first World Cup qualifier in 64 years. After 19 trophies in almost a decade at Real Madrid, Bale’s tense time in LaLiga went all the way to the finish line. Rather than return to England’s Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United or Aston Villa as was rumored – or even his hometown’s league club, Cardiff City – Bale took a pay cut of over $30m to join a club nearly 6,000 miles from Madrid away is in a league with no promotion/relegation system.

Less than two hours later, the Welsh winger called out LAFC’s fight song through a megaphone, which was showered by teammates – including a pink World Cup champion Giorgio Chiellini, who left Juventus after 17 years in June – after a 3-2 win. At his opening press conference, Bale hailed the league’s progress, particularly over the past decade, and contradicted suggestions of a ‘retired league’. (This, of course, after Bale confirmed he would postpone his retirement from football if Wales qualified for Qatar.)

Just as MLS Rivalry Week began, it was rumored that two-time European Golden Boot winner Luis Suarez is also heading to the US, with the ex-Atletico Madrid/Barcelona/Liverpool star saying he has “five or six Offers”. (Keyword “Lionel Messi reunion in Miami,” which has the ping-pong rumor mill churning.) Wayne Rooney, who played in DC from 2018-2019 and delivered arguably the biggest game in MLS history, was named new earlier this week United manager announced.



In 2018, Wayne Rooney completed one of the most incredible games in MLS history to help DCU beat Orlando.

MLS as a winning league will always be a talking point, the evidence of that is only bolstered by 30-year-olds like Bale, Suarez, Rooney and Messi popping up backstage and the top 5 salaries of MLS 2022 that all players belong who are 30 or older. But about halfway through the season, MLS’s average attendance is over 20,000, fast approaching that of Major League Baseball (nearly 26,000 during the All-Star break) as America’s pastime panics.

Of the thirteen most lucrative exits from MLS, all but one have come in the last four years.

The real magician pulling the levers behind the curtain isn’t a player, young or old, if you will: it’s derby days – and MLS (which hasn’t answered a request for comment) is all in.

While El Trafico — one of only two current crosstown league rivalries — lived up to its bill, the rest was a mixed bag. Portland defeated Seattle 3-0 to the delight of the Timbers Army. San Jose, who hadn’t won a game as of April 23 and currently sits 12th of 14 in the West, sunk the Galaxy 3-2 in the California Clasico thanks to sloppy early defensive errors by LA Philadelphia against DC, for which it a tie gave the most lopsided game in MLS history, with Union winning 7-0 over an unfortunate DC with an interim manager at the helm. (Enter, Rooney.)

But with three rivalries featured on Sunday, a pattern is emerging: only one of any Rivalry Week features two Original 10 members of the MLS: the Galaxy vs. San Jose. Despite their boastful rights, the Earthquakes haven’t finished more than League 10 in a decade. (Possibly Landon Donovan.) Seven out of nine Rivalry Week games feature a side that has joined the league since 2009. Of the original 10 members, only half bear their original names.

And while many derbies are naturally heated and hotly contested — the Hudson River Derby, for example — some MLS supporters say it can feel contrived at times.

For Jeremy Wright, a member of the Timbers Army since its inception in 2001, derbies are not only an asset, but for an American sport that is comparatively in its infancy, they transmit pedigrees and cherish legacies through generations. Liverpool may only have been formed when and because relations within Everton’s brass turned sour – but that was 130 years ago. MLS is still not 30 years old. For Wright, rivalries like those of Portland and Seattle — two of America’s most passionate soccer cities — hinge on a keen love for one’s adopted home, since both are largely transplant cities.

“Once a rivalry becomes just that,” says Wright, who moved to Portland in the late 1990s, “it becomes bigger than the game itself and relevant outside of the sport.”

Wright attended friendly watch parties for the 1998 World Series, which morphed into something more permanent and devoted when the Timbers’ revival was announced. In 2001, the reborn Timbers (who had folded a decade earlier) hosted the USL A-League iteration of the Seattle Sounders.

“I just remember thinking straight away,” says Wright, “‘Wow, these teams don’t like each other.’ Even now — I have two kids and sometimes can’t make time for games — I’m sitting here and watching with my girls… booing Seattle.

Wright, originally from Washington, DC, runs a consulting firm engaged in public affairs and policy consulting, primarily with school districts and public agencies to pass emissions and raise funds. But the weekends? They belong to the Timbers. Wright says – not unlike huge swathes of home turf for MLS supporters – a Timbers win sends the whole city into an uproar.

“I’m on Zoom calls with clients and people are like, ‘Hey, you guys blew Seattle,'” says Wright. “It’s everywhere this Monday.”

“But for those of us that have been at it for a while…we think what MLS needs to look at is to make sure it doesn’t feel manufactured and plasticky. You are bidding on authenticity and [rivalries are] about cultural touchstones that go back further than a football team.”

A fan told ESPN after a recent NYCFC game: “I appreciate that MLS is trying to make Rivalry Week one thing – up the stakes, make it more than just a game – but you can Don’t make Columbus dislike Cincinnati example.”

“It’s such a young league in comparison,” says Wright. “I remember when we spoke to MLS people [in the early days] who would say: “We must be careful; we don’t want to be like NASL and expand too quickly.'”

The first year of MLS in 1996 saw 10 teams. Five years later, having previously expanded to 12, the league was back to 10. In 2015 it was 20. Next year it will be 29, with cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego vying for expansion. Wright definitely noticed: “There’s a new team every year. It’s fascinating how that mentality has changed.” Aggressive MLS expansion hinges on global football’s bread and butter: The derby day

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