The Rust Belt Derby

Taking notes from Cascadia, the NPSL’s Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit teams didn’t need an artificial league mandate to find their rivals
by Daniel Casey   |   Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Rust Belt Derby

Footy culture doesn’t just happen; creating a supporter base here in the US can’t be a top down process. In the middle of last decade, MLS created a series of pointless “cups” that the league intended to foster rivalries between teams. These were merely regular season games trumped up to be something they were not: a clash between bitter archrivals. These rivalry cups have largely been forgotten though they still persist. But the simple fact is no matter how much I dislike the state of Texas I can’t bring myself to actually believe there’s any animosity between the Chicago Fire and FC Dallas (the winner of this so-called rivalry receiving the “Brimstone Cup”). Chicago, the city, doesn’t have any connection – positive or negative, historical or cultural – to the city of Dallas. This is a fake showdown. Such faux competitions still pepper the top tier of US soccer.

But wait, there’s more. After all, who can forget the amazing California Clasico between Los Angeles and San Jose? Or the always meaningful Trillium Cup between Columbus and Toronto? The enormously traditional Heritage Cup between San Jose and Seattle is always a bloodbath; the SuperClasico between the always dangerous Chivas USA and Los Angeles; the always bitter Texas Derby between FC Dallas and Houston; and of course east coast bragging rights are given in the Atlantic Cup between DC United and New York.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of any of these? Or, you have, but the idea of this being a rivalry makes you snort. The fact is there is only one MLS rivalry that matters because it’s actually a rivalry that began before the teams of the cities were in MLS. That’s the Cascadia Cup between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. In fact, the only other MLS cup that has been even slightly interesting is the Rocky Mountain Cup between Real Salt Lake and Colorado. These are the only rivalries that matter because they are supporter-group-created “cups.” Rivalries built on the backs of supporters, not invented by the league. Again, top down supporter building is so very artificial as to be insulting.

These rivalries are what we need. These other artificial rivalries dilute the notion of cup and derby play in North America. They actually create an almost desperate vibe. Rivalries can’t be forced on you any more than you can be told who to be friends with. Before Philadelphia joined MLS, the Sons of would travel to New Jersey simply to boo the Red Bulls at their home games. They didn’t give a damn what team was playing New York. They just wanted to let New York know they didn’t like them. If you ever needed to know the character of Philadelphia, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example.

Currently, Sporting Kansas City’s supporters (and front office which has become much more supporter friendly) have been doing its best to goad Chicago. Thus far Chicago supporters have reacted like an older brother humoring a younger eager sibling. Chicago has its own venom to deal to Columbus and New England.

North American soccer supporters deserve better. And in a small league that few know about in a region that has seen better days, supporters are doing it for themselves. The National Premier Soccer League is the semi-pro league in the fourth tier of US soccer. The players here are local boys from area colleges and universities, the occasional young international, and the odd veteran that still needs to have a serious run-out onto the pitch. The NPSL like its fourth tier counterpart, the PDL or Premier Development League, is a player growth league meant to provide young footballers with the means to play competitively when they’re out of school so they can break into higher tier pro leagues like USL PRO, NASL, or, hopefully, MLS. In the Great Lakes Conference of the NPSL there are three big markets with small teams that have serious ambitions.

This year will see the debut of AFC Cleveland and Detroit City FC. They’ll join longtime NPSL side the Erie Admirals, fellow newcomer Greater Binghamton FC, and still novel FC Buffalo. Nine hours of travel separate the two farthest teams making this conference a close-knit, serious regional affair. The newest clubs, AFCC and DCFC, have some savvy supporters. The Northern Guard Supporters/Le Rouge Supporters have created a serious stir in Detroit. Not only have these supporters made it a point to foster close ties within the community, they’ve demonstrated that they have a serious sense of style. DCFC’s supporters will be decked out in some slick scarves and shirts, and the DCFC squad will look less like a fledgling amateur side and more like a seasoned pro side with its kit.

Detroit has raised the bar for semi-pro soccer in the region. AFC Cleveland and FC Buffalo have stepped up to the challenge. Not to be outdone, AFC Cleveland (newly nicknamed “Royals”) has built a team store that is well worth a perusal and their supporter group, the 6th City Syndicate, has been digging in its heels American-Outlaw-style and creating chants, songs, and its own swag. Buffalo’s supporters, The Situation Room, finally have a team that they can have fun with whereas before they were a lonely footy group having to hone their craft against the remarkably un-tech savvy Erie (the team can’t seem to craft a website to save their lives, have virtually no Twitter or Facebook presence, and seem to make it a point to make it as difficult as possible to actually get to know anything about the team).

These three supporter groups have been trash talking each other for a few weeks now via Twitter and Facebook, which is truly amazing considering that AFCC and DCFC haven’t yet filled their rosters. Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit—these are working class cities, each with a deep immigrant history, cities that have seen better days financially and culturally. These cities are the very definition of hardnosed labor, and as such they love their sports. Cleveland continues to believe in the NFL Browns even though they will never succeed, Buffalo has given its heart to its NHL Sabers and much like Browns fans think their own NFL Bills will one day win something, Detroit with its Pistons, Lions, and Tigers keep faith through their attachment to each team’s deep history in their respective league. These are cities that persist.

They even persist when it comes to soccer. Once a city gets a taste of soccer, they want it. Even though teams have come and gone from each city due to financial concerns, each city has rebounded and built back up. The current incarnation could very well be lasting. These supporters, these regional, historical and cultural rivals have decided they need a cup. So these supporters have created The Rust Belt Derby going into their inaugural season together. They have taken it upon themselves to make their conference play something more than mere points on a league table. Created and sponsored by supporters, it can’t get much better. This is how the Cascadia Cup started out and we can see what it has bloomed into—huge crowds of boisterous fans in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver that are arguably pushing MLS into respectability and profitability. This bodes well for the Rust Belt teams as they look to slowly but surely pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and play their game the way they want.

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.