Soccer is built around rivalries. Take, for example, Manchester United vs. Liverpool, whose very public rivalry centered around a long campaign of media battery from United supporters in frustration of Liverpool’s dominance from 1976 to 1990, resulting in 10 championships.
In football systems – not just soccer but also gridiron football and rugby – rivalries drive the sport. They make casual observers into diehard fans. They fill stadiums in bad weather for teams with terrible records. They fuel legions of bar and pub debates; fill volumes of newspapers, magazines, and blogs; and generally drive the passions of anyone following the rivalry. In short, rivalries mean big business for those in the sports industry.
However, there seems to be something … odd … about the rivalries in Major League Soccer. While there are fans who feel true animosity toward other teams, there is a sense that the rivalries in the league are plastic and were set up by the league to encourage ticket sales. This argument is supported by the high number of rivalry cups contended for over the years. While it can be argued that college football also has a large number of rivalry games and tournaments, these developed organically during a nearly 150-year history. Most MLS rivalry cups are held between teams currently – or previously – owned by the same owner.
With the sense of rivalry already suspect in the MLS, the question of how fans are reacting to each other during these conference championships is an open one that may be hard to quantify concisely.
When looking at the sentiment scores of the four participants of the MLS Conference Championships – the Portland Timbers, FC Dallas, Columbus Crew SC, and the New York Red Bulls – an unexpected picture emerges. FC Dallas and Columbus compete for the Lamar Hunt Pioneer Cup, as both were owned by the Hunt Sports Group. However, looking at the sentiment of social mentions of the conference finalists reveals that this rivalry seemingly doesn’t make much of a difference.
The Portland Timbers received the highest sentiment score at 0.185, suggesting modestly positive sentiment toward the team online. Portland’s biggest rival is market competitor Seattle Sounders FC, which may help to explain why there is relatively little negative talk about the team on social media; besides Seattle, Portland has no market competitors.
At 0.0375, the New York Red Bulls have the lowest sentiment score of the conference finalists. The team’s only true rival is the New York City FC – which is weird, because the teams have not played each other yet – but, being in the super-metropolitan area comprising Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., the team will naturally have rivalry with other upper Atlantic coast teams.
Friendly Rivalry Online
Among the conference finalist-related terms that received the most positive sentiment are “Castillo FC Dallas” – a reference to Colombian-born FC Dallas forward Fabian Castillo, who signed a new five-year contract with FC Dallas this year and was added to the 2015 AT&T MLS All-Star Roster to play against Tottenham Hotspur FC – and “Zendejas FC Dallas,” referring to FC Dallas midfielder Alex Zendejas. The 17-year-old is in his first year with FC Dallas, previously playing with FC Dallas U-16 U.S. Soccer Development Academy team for three seasons.
Other high-ranking terms include sports broadcaster and national and international soccer correspondent Ashleigh Ignelzi, FC Dallas’s Toyota Stadium, and FC Dallas forward Blas Pérez.
While most of the top terms focused on FC Dallas, several terms focused on the other conference finalists, including Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark; “Portland,” “Timbers” and “Beaverton” – referring to the Portland Timbers and their training facilities in Beaverton, Oregon – and Columbus Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter.
It is important to note that while Portland vs. Seattle is a far cry in rivalry terms from Manchester United vs. Liverpool, the idea that both teams are discussed openly and with some enthusiasm online is a start. While the exploits of the National Women’s World Cup Team and their success in Canada this year helped to bring soccer into the consciousness of sports fans in this country, it still significantly lags behind other sports on the professional level – the MLS has the lowest valuation of all of the major American sports leagues.
However, with every passing year, more sports viewers develop a passion for the sport that has captivated the rest of the world, and – slowly – the rivalries that define and fuel the international soccer community are finding a home with America’s homespun teams. It is in these rivalries that soccer lives and soccer fans become diehard fanatics and devotees.
“The tension, the passion, from both sets of supporters and players,” U.S. Men’s National Team striker Jozy Altidore said to the Washington Post about the U.S. team’s rivalry with the Mexican team. “It just goes so far back, the game means so much more each time it’s played.”
We pulled every tweet with #FCDallas, #Timbers, #RBNY, and #Crew96, and using the Alchemy API, we looked at the targeted sentiment score of the most commonly used terms throughout. The targeted sentiment looks at the words around a particular term and determines on a scale of -1 to 1 how negative or positive these words are, with 0 being neutral.