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Have the Union finally found a team willing to be their rival?

Photo credit: Marjorie Elzay

Eagles-Cowboys. Red Sox-Yankees. Liverpool-Everton. Rivalries define fanbases to the point that for many more casual fans they are the primary focus of their interest. However good or bad the teams involved are in a given year, fans want their team to beat their rival. It galvanizes interest, drives narratives, and makes for interesting games even if you’re not a regular follower of the teams involved.

And since the team’s inception, Philadelphia Union fans have been searching for a rivalry like that. The Red Bulls have received most of the focus in that search; which makes sense. The natural PA-New Jersey animosity is fertile ground, fertilized with pre-existing Giants, Mets, and Rangers animosity. But despite many attempts (and many uninspired energy drink-based jokes) it just never caught on. When the Union entered MLS, the Red Bulls were locked in on D.C. United as their primary rival, with both teams having bad blood running back to the founding of the league fourteen years before Philly entered the competition. And while the Red Bulls have relaxed on that rivalry, it wasn’t to turn their attention on Philly, but rather to play into the manufactured rivalry across the Hudson against New York City FC.

The league tried multiple times, and multiple Heineken Rivalry Weeks, to make the New England Revolution into the Union’s nemesis. But it just never stuck. Boston and Philadelphia invented America together, and they share a hatred of New York. Both teams are controlled by wealthy, yet absentee, owners. Add in the fact that Philly and Boston regularly trade the “worst fans in America” title back and forth and it feels less like a rivalry and more like a fraternity.

Other attempts have been made. This author previously campaigned to make Sporting Kansas City a rival. US Open Cup heartbreak, consistently contentious games, and Peter Vermes playing a key role in denying Keegan Rosenberry’s Homegrown designation. This matchup had everything needed for a rivalry, except interest. Even before SKC moved to the Western Conference, neither fanbase was particularly moved by the other, and the campaign failed rather swiftly.

And that is, at it’s root, the fundamental challenge of building a rivalry. You can’t just decide two teams are rivals. There needs to be history, and there needs to be a feeling of animosity on both sides. That’s the biggest knock on the Eagles-Cowboys “rivalry”, that while Eagles fans may hate the Cowboys, people in Dallas don’t think about Philly. The Revolution rivalry failed because neither side really cares about the other. And the Red Bull rivalry failed because the Red Bulls never thought of the Union as rivals.

Luckily there are still teams available for a rivalry.

On Tuesday the DC United social media team, in a clear effort to justify their paychecks through the offseason, posted a Twitter thread comparing every team in the league to candy. Some of them were predictable, like Atlanta United as peach rings, New England as Boston baked beans, or the Chicago Fire as atomic fireballs. Some were mean like Orlando as grape blow pops, FC Cincinnati as Nerds, or the Galaxy as Airheads. Others were more surreal, like NYCFC as those strawberry things, or Vancouver’s banana Now and Laters.

But it was the final tweet of the thread that started the train of thought that lead to this article.

There’s a very enjoyable “no one likes us” angle here, and if intentional full credit to DC United for that. But it also shows the door being open. DC United surely recognizes that their former rivalry with the Red Bulls isn’t what it used to be, now that the famously bad stadium the Red Bulls want to win in is Yankee Stadium rather than RFK. And with the significant overlap of hockey and soccer fan bases it could carry some of the momentum of the renewing Flyers-Capitals rivalry. Philly and DC are close enough geographically for significant away fan presence at any game, and the teams have played each other in enough significant games to give any future games the history and context needed for a real rivalry.

But most importantly, it appears that DC United sees the Union not just as another team in the league but as a rival. It’s manufactured and kind of hokey, but if we accept the kayfabe it could be exactly what Union fans have been searching for.



  1. Also, some Union fans used to be DC United fans… (sips tea)

    • Oooo I hadn’t considered the expansion implications. Good catch.

      • PhilinWilmington says:

        guilty as charged. First MLS match I attended was at RFK… DCU versus I don’t remember… I have a Freddy Adu practice jersey.

        But to the topic at hand… over the years the best union matches I’ve watched have been Red Bulls and Revs… always feisty always with a little bit of “this is what playoff would be like” intensity… and of course the recent matches against Atlanta have been great.

        And now I just want NYCFC and their crap field dimensions to get their a$$ beat by everyone.

        So DC = Philly rival for me is … well, kinda meh. If the matches were more feisty, maybe?

        Or maybe it would be nicer if our rivals weren’t bottom feeders.

  2. Union-United makes sense as a rivalry. The Union’s first home game/win was against United. Geographically it’s not much farther to DC than it is to northern New Jersey. Some of the games have been contentious (think 3 red cards in the game where Geiger ruled a PK had to be retaken when someone entered the box too soon).
    On the other hand, it is a more respectful rivalry than most. Think about the time that supporters of both teams took a break from chanting in memory of Union supporter Eric Shertz. It’s a rivalry where the teams/fans can leave it all on the field and then go out and have a beer afterwards.
    As a fan of a hockey team with a particularly nasty rivalry. (I’m a Ranger fan and I remember when Pelle Lindbergh died and the next time the Islanders came to the Garden, chants of “Get a Porsche Potvin, get a Porsche” could be heard.) It would be nice for the Union to have a rival but without that level of hate.

    • As a Flyers fan, the Rangers have been on the bottom rung of the rivalry ladder. It’s the Devils and the Pens for me before either NY team. They were the bane of my childhood.

    • I grew up in NYC, and OMG Rangers fans were the WORST. Mind you this is from 30+ years ago, when the Islanders had a dynasty and the Rangers hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1940. But I remember when the Islanders came to the Garden, the leading chant, to the tune of “Camptown Ladies”, was, “Denis Potvin beats his wife, doo-dah… doo-dah…”

      • That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Most of the Ranger games I went to were in the late 90’s when the company I worked for had seasons tickets and since I was a single guy, I could grab one when the clients cancelled last minute. Even then, I don’t remember a game where I didn’t hear “Potvin sucks” even though he was long retired.
        The 4 years I was in high school in North Jersey were the 4 years the Islanders won the cup and everyone there was a fan of one of the two teams (no one cared about the Devils yet).
        That’s a rivalry.

  3. I still feel like the most acrimonious matches the past five years have been with Red Bull. We’ve had really good matches against them in the season and have knocked them out of the Open Cup a bunch. This season — with two come-from-behind beatings — should have cemented that. United seems lost in some sort of soccer purgatory,too, in which it will never escape Ben Olson and mid-table finishes. I can only get so excited about DC. It makes sense geographically, but that’s about it.

    • There have been points where I actually liked Ben Olson and thought he did a decent job for D.C. The rivalry had an uptick for me with Rooney coming over (Screw Man U, glad they suck). Now that Rooney is gone, meh. Pink Cows are it for me.

    • But hatred for New York does not a rivalry make – it has to be split across both sides. We (collectively) hate Red Bull, but do they (collectively) hate the Union? New York just shrugs those losses off as if we were little brother getting in a cheap shot. Remember that drubbing we handed United at Audi Stadium? That’s fuel for a rivalry

      • This is really a great point you make. The one little thing I would like to point out is that, using your analogy, I remember fighting my younger brothers. They are strangely fond memories. The league, in comparison to other leagues and other sports is still young. And rivalries are built on a sense of hatred…but also love of that hatred. Could it be that our cheap shots might turn to their love of hatred in a future?

      • But I don’t hate D.C.. And I’m not alone…So yeah, if both sides is your thing, D.C. isn’t it either. And ONE drubbing does not a rivalry make. If anything, the Union haven’t been good enough to warrant a rivalry with any team, anyway.

  4. Best matches are against Kansas City if you ask me. Those matches are almost always competitive and a joy to watch. I’m still trying to figure out how to swing a trip to KC but the missus is a hard sell on soccer & bbq alone.

    • Plus KC will likely come to Philly next season unless they change up the rotation. (Not sure how it’s going to work with 26 teams or even if they will play everyone in the other conference.)

    • My K.C. hate was derived more from Vermes and CryHaber. Benny was the best to dump my anger on.

  5. In Tanner We Trust says:

    I wouldn’t mind considering DC a rival. But the 3 teams I hate the most are RB, NYC, and ATL. But the Red Bulls should be the archrival from now on. They don’t have a championship either, and we’ve broken their hearts twice now, one of which in historic fashion.

  6. Dc was our first un manufactured rival… great games between the 2. soo okay?

    I think ATL-PHL is going to be a lot better than dc-phl tho

  7. Was thinking about this some more and I think it is hard to have a REAL rivalry in MLS the way you do in other sports. Over the course of an 8 month regular season you don’t play anyone more than twice and then maybe once more in playoffs and/or Open Cup.
    Compare that with other sports.
    NFL – still only twice but in a 4 month season so games are closer.
    NBA/NHL – 4 or 5 times against division foes. And that’s down from where it used to be when there were fewer teams. Add fighting into the equation in hockey. And then playoff series are 4-7 games. And in hockey, the first two rounds tend to be against divisional foes.
    Haven’t looked at a baseball schedule lately, but I remember back when there were 12 teams in each league, you played 18 games against each team in your division (and 12 in the other). I’m sure that’s gone down, but still plenty of chances for a pitcher to throw at a batter’s head on the first pitch of the game to retaliate for something from the day before.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Personally, I don’t agree here. Some of the best rivalries in sports are present in college football. Think Ohio St vs Michigan. Auburn vs Alabama. Georgia vs Georgia Tech. I think only having one home game against any potential rival makes it urgent to win. There’s a realization of “oh crap if we lose we’ll hear about it for 365 days”.

  8. In Tanner We Trust says:

    I can’t picture a future scenario where NYRB don’t start to recognize us. We have a brighter future than they do for the first time. Their supporter’s section left our stadium soaked and depressed in October. Not to mention, the players on both teams clearly feel it. You can just feel the tension. I hope the season opener is against them so we can shove the win down their throats. Let’s have a 120 minute tribute video to the 2 wins against them in our house

    • Old Soccer coach says:

      even better than the fanbase was the body language of the players as OT was winding down. They were dead and buried, and they knew it.
      That game was the last for Luis Robles and BWP with New York.

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        So true! I forgot how Robles kept them in that game. The rest of the team looked defeated around the 60-70 minute range.

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