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MLS 101: Conferences and Rivalries

(Photo: Hayden Schiff/Flickr)


by Russell Varner

This month, February 2020, starts a new era for Major League Soccer. With the introduction of Inter Miami and Nashville SC, the league has grown to 26 teams. Unlike other soccer leagues around the world – but similar to other American sports leagues – those 26 teams are split into two conferences. The split is as follows, with each conference holding 13 teams: 

The Eastern Conference: Atlanta United, Chicago Fire FC, Columbus Crew SC, D.C. United, FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami CF, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC

The Western Conference: Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, LAFC, LA Galaxy, Minnesota United, Nashville SC, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver Whitecaps

(Yes, Nashville's in the West. There's hope that this changes in 2022 when St. Louis and Sacramento both join the league.)

The MLS regular season is 34 games long. With 26 teams ... that's a problem.

Beginning this year, teams will still play the usual 17 home games and 17 away games, but they will face each of their intra-conference opponents 12 times (24 matches) while the remaining 10 matches will take place against some – but not all – of the opponents from the opposite conference.

This means that, unlike in years past, every team will play a different set of opponents. Many fans have complained that this devalues the Supporters Shield, the trophy given to the team with the most points at the end of the season and the traditional title that soccer teams around the world play for.

With the addition of Charlotte and Austin FC next season and Sacramento and St. Louis the following year, expect these complaints to get louder, unless of course MLS decides to add to the number of league games played.

At the end of this period of expansion, MLS will have 30 teams, which will be the most of any top-flight soccer league in the world. Stay tuned to see if they really do stay at 30, or if the two conference system stays in place for the long term. 

Buried within the conference system are a myriad of rivalries (and cups), and what fun are sports without rivalries? In soccer, that is especially true. Here are some of the best that the league has to offer, with all of them set to survive the new uneven schedule.

El Tráfico – LA Galaxy v LAFC
The Los Angeles derby has only been around for two years, but it's hard to argue that this is not already the best rivalry in the league. The name itself stands out around the world, an homage to the term "clásico." And it already boasts one of the most memorable games in league history: the Galaxy’s  dramatic comeback in their first meeting that involved THAT goal from Zlatan. LAFC earned their first win against the Galaxy in the playoffs last year, and league MVP Carlos Vela is coming off the greatest season in league history. For 2020, the Galaxy have added Mexican legend Javier Hernández, which has only fueled the fire in this heavily-Latino derby.

Cascadia Cup – Seattle Sounders v Portland Timbers v Vancouver Whitecaps
Perhaps the competition that brought the league to the place it is today, the Cascadia Cup is more of a competition inside the competition, one that has gone on since 2004 – dating back to before all three sides joined MLS. Whichever side earns the most points against the other two opponents over the course of the regular season lifts the Cup, and any time Seattle and Portland play each other, it is must-see TV for the atmosphere alone. 

Texas Derby – FC Dallas v Houston Dynamo
While it may not be the most creatively named rivalry in the league, it is arguably the most even. FC Dallas holds a very slight advantage in regular season, postseason and Open Cup matches (15W-13L-13D). But the best part of the rivalry is that they don’t play for a traditional trophy – they play for ‘El Capitán,’ a replica 18th-century mountain howitzer cannon. Watch out.

Hudson River Derby – New York Red Bulls v New York City FC
While the Atlantic Cup (D.C. United v New York Red Bulls) has a lot more history to it, that derby has been decidedly one-sided as of late – D.C. has just one win in their last 15 matches against the Red Bulls. The newly made New York derby, on the other hand, has been the opposite. The Red Bulls held an early advantage (including a 7-0 win in 2016), but the series has been tied since – each team has had five wins, five losses and two draws. Expect the league to promote El Tráfico and the Hudson River Derby until the end of time.

Hell is Real - FC Cincinnati v Columbus Crew SC
Is Ohio actually hell? It's possible, yes, but this rivalry gets its name from a billboard located on Interstate 71 between the two Ohio cities. Since Porkopolis joined the league in 2019, Cincinnati has been a disaster (and the MLS-original Crew haven't been much better), so there isn't much to go on here in terms of MLS regular season results: The teams battled to a 2-2 draw and a 3-1 Crew win last season. But the cities are only 110 miles apart, and as long as both teams play in their respective cities, this will be a massive midwest rivalry to follow.
Soon, the Eastern Conference will also play host to the Dixie Cup (our suggested name for the Atl*nta v Nashville v Charlotte rivalry). Start preparing your arteries now for all the sweet tea and fried chicken we'll consume during those matches in the many years to come.

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