SUPERCLASICO! – The only true derby in Major League Soccer
The SuperClasico between Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA is a rivalry unique within Major League Soccer. While other rivalries exist between neighbouring conurbations, such as that of Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, El Clásico Angelino is the only true ‘derby’ to take place between two franchises who share one stadium, in one city. Of the teams, Galaxy have a far superior record to that of Chivas, however, that does not dilute the veracity that exists between the pair. In fact the loathing is mutual both off and sometimes on the pitch.
LA Galaxy was seen as the glamour club of the MLS. With Legendary player Alexi Lalas at the helm in the early part of this century, they managed to attract not only the most talented and high profile American player of his day, Landon Donavon, but also the prize of global icon David Beckham. Lured by the LA lifestyle and the future plans of the Galaxy, brand Beckham arrived in 2007 in a cacophony of hype and noise. Cynics said he was only going there to line his pocket one last time and ease into retirement, more so with consecutive off season loans back to AC Milan, however Beckham stayed for six years culminating in back to back MLS Cup Championships for the Galaxy in 2011 and 2012.
The inception of Chivas USA came in 2004 when Mexican team Chivas Guadalajara wanted to attract the large Mexican and Hispanic community that live within Los Angeles away from other sports, and into soccer. Initially the players within the Chivas squad were entirely Mexican, and despite the club now recruiting from a wide pool of nationalities, there is still a definite Latino feel to Chivas with the majority of songs still sung in Spanish.
Chivas have long been accepted as the underdog of the two sides by both sets of supporters. Their fans, like Angel Mendoza from Los Angeles, see themselves as David in a struggle against Goliath “We’re the underdogs; we’re the working man’s team. The Galaxy, they’re the Hollywood Beverly Hills team, the superstars.” Many Mexican immigrants like Andres Morales who supported Chivas Guadalajara found supporting Chivas USA as a natural transition. His family in Mexico also were Guadalajara supporters and now his Children in America are being raised as Chivas USA fans.
The relationship between Galaxy fans and Chivas as a club is interesting. On the one hand they casually dismiss Chivas as an entity believing that San Jose Earthquakes are their biggest rivals, yet they also use quite expressive language to describe their feelings towards Chivas too. Galaxy fan Don Loney believes the whole concept of Chivas being a manufactured club made by Guadlajaran Mexicans for Mexicans living in Los Angeles is nothing more than a marketing trick: “They are like the Taco Bell of Major League Soccer. They are a fake. They are ersatz. They are artificial…I am a Galaxy Hamas. I do not recognize their right to exist.”. He goes on to call Chivas a “patronizing embarrassment to American soccer and American culture”. The vociferous language used by Loney is maybe something you would expect to hear in a historic European rivalry, not one less than a decade old.
That isn’t to say that the bitterness is one way. As you would expect from a team used to being regularly beaten by their biggest neighbours, Chivas can give as good as they get. One blogger on MLSSoccer.com denounced supporters of “Hollywood Galaxy” as having no knowledge of what football really is. Emotions are not entirely limited to off the pitch either.
In 2007 Chivas player Jesse Marsch who already had somewhat of a reputation, decided to take the fight to Galaxy and of all the players to pick on he went straight for superstar Beckham with a scything challenge from behind. A clearly livid Beckham immediately took umbrage with Marsch and several players from both sides became embroiled in the skirmish. Marsch later admitted the tackle was premeditated to try and unsettle Beckham; it also made him a cult hero amongst Chivas fans.
Predrag Radosavljević (known as Preki) was Chivas manager in the latter part of the last decade and he was not averse to using aggressive means to defend Chivas’ honour. In 2009 after Galaxy player Dema Kovalenko thrust his pelvis in Preki’s direction after a game, Preki charged at Kovalenko and it was only the intervention of Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena which prevented the incident from deteriorating. Preki was also involved in an earlier incident when Landon Donovan celebrated an LA Galaxy goal in front of the Chivas bench.
Labelling the incident “absolute crap”, Preki accused Donovan of “disrespect”. Again these petulant actions by Galaxy players deliberately trying to antagonise the Chivas camp do not weigh up with their fans claims that Chivas are a non entity barely worth bothering with. However, when the teams are not due to face each other, relations can be a bit more cordial. Landon Donovan has pointed out that though in the week before the SuperClasico rival players keep their heads down, usually friendly greetings are exchanged when the two teams are not due to play each other. However not all players feel the same, Jovan Kirovski who had two spells with Galaxy bluntly expressed how he felt towards Chivas; “I ignore them all the time. I blank them. I hate them. … I don’t like them, I really don’t.”
Even the sharing of the stadium and other facilities has bred the contempt that the two teams feel towards each other. The Home Depot Arena was built by Galaxy owners Anschutz Entertainment Group and there is a definite sense of Galaxy feeling superior to their sitting tenants as defender Alan Dunivant explains; “This was our home turf, and they were kind of coming in on that. They are in our stadium, using our facilities”. Chivas captain Sacha Kljestan describes Galaxy as being on their “high horse” when it comes to the landlord/tenant issue and there is a definite sense of encroachment by Chivas upon a patch that isn’t rightfully theirs.
LA Galaxy has undeniably the better record both between the two teams and across the MLS as a whole. Galaxy are currently winning the head to head contests by 18 to 4 and since the inception of Chivas in 2005, Galaxy have been MLS Cup Champions three times whilst the best Chivas have been able to muster is a Western Conference title in 2007. Whilst initial policy of selecting Mexican only players for Chivas has been lauded by many, critics believe that this has held back the development and potential success of Chivas. Galaxy has a much broader recruitment policy and have been able to recruit not only players of the stature of Beckham but also others who offer a wide experience of the game, notably Robbie Keane and Carlos Hermosillo.
The SuperClasico is unique as it is part of the fabric of the MLS and also a key to its future. In a comparatively new league played across a large continental land mass it can be hard to generate excitement. Teams from opposing sides of the United States (and Canada) travel a great distance to play in large sterile stadia which at times struggle to generate an atmosphere. Local derbies which can add that spark of excitement are very few and far between, which is why the SuperClasico is important to MLS authorities.
Beckham’s arrival thrust the Galaxy onto a global level and the antagonism that comes with their noisy tenants provides MLS governing bodies an opportunity to market the league abroad. Long seen as a manufactured graveyard for former decent footballers looking for one last payout, the attraction of Beckham and the hatred the SuperClasico brings gives the MLS a chance to generate external income and improve its profile on a global level.
The SuperClasico is a fascinating concept. In a fledgling league still trying to find its feet in the competitive world of global football, the fixture stands out as two clubs with a definite organic dislike of each other both on and off the pitch. There is nothing manufactured about the animosity and any encouragement of dislike for marketing purposes by MLS authorities is not needed. This is a derby in its truest form as two local teams vie with each other to be the most relevant in the geographical area which they share. The two clubs can be best seen as brothers, Chivas the younger brother constantly poking away at his bigger brother, LA Galaxy, who pretending not to be bothered by his sibling’s prodding is secretly seething.
The rivalry has the potential to evolve over the coming years as Chivas become a better team and begin to challenge Galaxy on a more consistent basis. It’s exciting as unlike many more established European and South American rivalries which have been around since time immemorial, we get to see the SuperClasico grow and evolve and possibly on a global level become something quite extraordinary indeed.