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A turn in the Hudson River Derby is what MLS needs

By: Will Pitts

The MLS needs NYCFC to close the cap in the Hudson River Derby. Saturday was a major step in the right direction.

As the whistle blew on New York City FC’s 2-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls Saturday, somebody in the Major League Soccer administration had to breathe a sigh of relief.

It was a nationally-televised edition of the Hudson River Derby, one of the highest-profile rivalries that the league has embraced in its marketing. There were just a few problems with that; the rivalry itself had only been in existence since 2015 – the year that New York City FC began to play.

It had also hardly been a “rivalry” at all.

MLS put the second team in New York for two reasons: to further the popularity of the league within the metropolitan area, and to create a natural rival for the Red Bulls. The implications of a bitter and intense soccer rivalry in New York would be glowing for the league: one of the largest media markets in the world, with one of the most famously passionate fanbases in sports, projecting that passion into a classic derby and injecting attention into a league that desperately needs it.

However, so far, New York City FC have hardly proven themselves up to the task. Before Saturday’s win, their overall record against the New York Red Bulls was 1-6-0. The most notable loss of all was a 7-0 thrashing in May 2016 at Yankee Stadium, in a game that was also televised nationally. Suddenly, the entire concept of a New York rivalry game blew up in the face of MLS. And they were asking for it.

Rivalries do not form just as soon as one team is placed next to another. They form naturally, whether due to a singular event or general animosity between two fanbases. Liverpool and Manchester United are classic rivals because of the two cities’ histories as competing industrial centers in Britain. The Old Firm derby between Rangers and Celtic is fueled by nationalistic, religious, and political fervor. Even the rivalry between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers has a history that dates all the way back to the 1970s and each team’s namesake in the old North American Soccer League.

These matchups have history, animosity, and reputation. The Hudson River Derby has none of those things yet because it hasn’t had time to develop any of them. When MLS markets the rivalry as if it already has these – for example, by giving the game a spot on national TV as part of “Rivalry Week” – it only makes the lack of them more glaring.

But this year, the hierarchy of New York soccer may be flipping. New York City FC sits comfortably in third in the Eastern Conference, while the Red Bulls are in seventh and fighting for a playoff spot. NYCFC’s win may have represented the start of a momentum shift. A deep playoff run and continued success against the Red Bulls may mean the start of a true derby in New York.

After all, rivalries aren’t built overnight.

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Will Pitts

After playing youth ice hockey for nine years and high school lacrosse for two years, William Pitts decided he would take the path of reporting on sports rather than playing them. In addition to writing for SoMuchSports, he also operates his own blog, the cleverly-named "Sports on TV" Blog, focusing on the business of televised sports. He hopes to one day become the next Al Michaels, but he'll gladly settle for becoming the next Joe Buck.

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