By James Morgan
On Wednesday the 13th, Real Salt Lake (RSL) and The Colorado Rapids will take to the field at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy Utah for the first match in the Rocky Mountain Cup. The Rocky Mountain Cup, one of nine MLS rivalry cups (meaning that they are created and administered by supporters’ groups rather than MLS itself), normally would not garner much attention from a hardened Timbers supporter like myself, but in this case, special circumstances apply.
Because why? Because in the Colorado Rapids and RSL we have two of what are arguably MLS’s finest sides and accordingly, we have every right to expect that Wednesday evening’s match will put on display some of the finest soccer to be found anywhere this side of the Atlantic and north of the Equator.
In RSL and the Rapids, we are talking about the last two MLS champs.
In RSL, we are looking at a side that looks to be this year’s most dominant MLS team and that has also, in a history-making set of dogged victories, made itself the first US club to make it to the CONCACAF Final. (More on this later, as it is important.)
In the Rapids, we’ve got last year’s MLS champs who play a bruising and physical game and who thus far have racked up three convincing wins in four MLS regular season appearances, with their only loss coming to FC Dallas, the same team they defeated to become last year’s MLS champs.
In other words, this year’s Rocky Mountain Cup is much more than a contest for bragging rights on the part of each team’s supporters.
Which brings us to rivalry cups in general; what they are and why they matter, or do not, as the case may be.
In MLS there are nine rivalry cups, that is, cups that are awarded to specific teams on the basis of an agreement between said team’s supporters. Typically, they involve two sides with a regional, historical or even name-based claim to a rivalry. Each team in MLS plays every other team twice during the regular season and in most rivalry cups it’s a matter of which side gets the better of the two matches they play against their cup rival. Points are awarded in accordance with regular soccer standings: three points for a win, one for a draw, and zero for a loss, and at the end of the second match, the cup is awarded.
When teams have the same amount of points,for example, if they both have wins against one another, the winner of the cup is then decided on aggregate. If it is still a draw, as sometimes happens, the team that won the cup most recently continues to hold it for another year.
The Atlantic Cup: This one is between the New York Red Bulls (formerly NY MetroStars) and DC United. In spite of a poor showing last year, DC United has always been an MLS powerhouse and will always be a threat to anyone. The Red Bulls, with several star DP signings, are a force to be reckoned with as well. The fans on both sides are large in number and this has long been one of MLS’s premier rivalries. For my money, this is a real cup that isn’t about to fade into obscurity.
The Brimstone Cup: This involves the Chicago Fire and FC Dallas and makes absolutely no sense unless you know that FC Dallas was originally known as The Dallas Burn. These days, well, sure, they’ve got their cup, and both teams are upper echelon MLS sides, but the whole point of the rivalry doesn’t exist anymore and we’re talking about cities that are separated by most of the length of the Mississippi here, so I can’t take it very seriously.
The California Clasíco: This one is between the LA Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes. Those from other parts of the country tend to think of California as a single monolithic entity, but those of us who are actually from the Golden State, know very well that there’s a huge difference between north and south and that no love is lost betwixt the twain. I believe that this one is a real rivalry.
The Heritage Cup: This is a recent invention meant to include the old west coast NASL sides that still use the old NASL team names. In theory, that includes the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps as well as the current participants, Seattle Sounders FC and San Jose Earthquakes, but in practice, both the Timbers and Whitecaps have provisionally ignored it, and it’s easy to see why. Basically, San Jose is the odd-man out here. It’s a Northern California side that won’t be able to easily ship up supporters to matches in the Pacific Northwest where the other three teams reside, so why bother?
The Honda Super Clasíco: This one is between Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy and is widely considered the only “true” derby in MLS, since it’s the only one that pits true next-door neighbors against each other. I like it. I like it a lot. What I don’t like are the ethnic overtones that it sometimes seems to have, with Latino Angelenos supporting Chivas USA, and the rest supporting The Galaxy, but whatever.
Rocky Mountain Cup: Basically this is Salt Lake City vs. Denver. Both play at home stadiums at altitude, which gives them an advantage over visitors, but in recent years a real dislike for one another has arisen. The result is that when these two play each other, the atmosphere in the stands is legitimately electric. This is not to mention that, as stated above, we’re talking about two of the best sides in all of MLS. I like this rivalry and believe that it will last.
Texas Derby: This is Dallas FC vs. The Houston Dynamo and is pretty self-explanatory. Texas has a huge Latino population that is very soccer-friendly and while Dallas FC has mostly made a point of beating the shit out of Houston, I see this as a potentially legitimate rivalry cup.
The Trillium Cup: The Columbus Crew and Toronto FC vie for this one on the basis that both Ontario and Ohio have the trillium as their official state and provincial flowers. They are also both on the Great Lakes, which I guess is something too, but you can call me a skeptic. Toronto has a much bigger bone to pick with its Canadian rival, Vancouver, and very soon, Montreal, than it does with a bunch of yahoos in Ohio. Long story short, I don’t see the Trillium Cup as having much lasting power.
The Cascadia Cup: This is the big one. It’s three teams, all located in the same region, all of whom have a longstanding dislike for one another. While Portland and Vancouver don’t necessarily hate each other the way they hate Seattle, the love is not returned. The supporters of these three sides exist in a cheerfully disrespectful yet symbiotic relationship that promises the finest rivalry and rain-besodden crowds in MLS history. Perhaps it is the Pacific Northwest’s climate, so similar to that of soccer’s British Isles birthplace, that engenders the finest supporters’ scene on the North American continent.
All of which brings us back to the first match of the Rocky Mountain Cup and why it matters. It matters not just because both RSL and the Rapids are two of the best sides in all of MLS; not just because what we’ll see Wednesday evening is bound to be top-level play; not just because both sides have well-established supporters groups that are guaranteed to make a show of force; it matters because this is MLS, this is soccer in North America, and if we’re ever going to make an impact as a nation and as a continent when it comes to the international scene, we need to have a domestic soccer league that’s capable of inspiring real feeling here at home.