Aggressive MLS expansion hinges on global football's bread and butter: The derby day

Having flown in from Europe that day, Gareth Bale's internal clock, as he stood in front of more than 22,000 fans at Banc of California stadium, read 4 A.M. Sandwiched between ESPN broadcasters Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman ahead of July 8th's El Trafico -- the instafamous derby between Bale's newly-adopted LAFC and LA Galaxy -- the five-time Champions League winner expounded on why he'd uprooted his family for a 12-month Major League Soccer jaunt in Southern California.

"This is a growing league," said a bleary-eyed Bale, black Henrik Stenson shades tucked on the neck of a white long sleeve. "The best prep [for a World Cup] is to play games. I want to [make] my stamp -- help LAFC try to win a trophy."

The captain of Wales' men's national team, Bale recently engineered his home country's first World Cup qualification in 64 years. After 19 trophies in almost a decade at Real Madrid, Bale's strained time in LaLiga puttered to the finish line. Instead of returning to Tottenham Hotspur in England, Newcastle United or Aston Villa as rumored -- or even his hometown's Championship side, Cardiff City -- Bale took a $30-plus million pay cut to join a club almost 6,000 miles from Madrid in a league with no promotion/relegation system.

Less than two hours later, the Welsh winger was shouting LAFC's fight song through a megaphone, doused by teammates -- including a pink pinnie-clad Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini, who left Juventus after 17 years in June -- following a 3-2 victory. At his introductory news conference, Bale hailed the league's progress, notably in the last ten years, and dissented against "retirement league" presumptions. (This, of course, in the wake of Bale confirming he'd postpone his retirement from football if Wales qualified for Qatar.)

Just as MLS' Rivalry Week kicked off, two-time European Golden Boot winner Luis Suarez was rumored to also be U.S.-bound, with the ex-Atletico Madrid/Barcelona/Liverpool star saying he had "five or six offers." (Cue the "reunion with Lionel Messi in Miami" ping-ponging rumor mill.) Wayne Rooney, who played in D.C. from 2018-2019 and pulled off arguably the greatest play in MLS history, was announced as United's new coach earlier this week.

MLS as a victory-lap-league will always be debate fodder, the evidence in support only strengthened by thirtysomethings like Bale, Suarez, Rooney and Messi looming off-stage and the top five 2022 MLS salaries all belonging to players 30 or older. But roughly halfway through the season, the average MLS attendance is above 20,000, inching ever closer to Major League Baseball's (just under 26,000 at the All-Star break) as America's pastime panics.

Of MLS' thirteen most lucrative departing transfers, all but one have come in the last four years.

The real wizard pulling levers behind the curtain, if you will, isn't a player, young or old: It's derby days -- and MLS is all-in.

While El Trafico -- one of only two current crosstown league rivalries -- lived up to its billing, the rest have been a mixed bag. Portland drubbed Seattle 3-0 to the delight of the Timbers Army. San Jose, who didn't win a match until April 23rd and currently sit 12th of 14 in the West, sank the Galaxy 3-2 in the "California Clasico" thanks to sloppy early defensive errors from L.A. Philadelphia vs. D.C. was tied for the most lopsided match in MLS history, the Union winning 7-0 over a hapless D.C. with an interim manager the helm. (Enter, Rooney.)

But with three featured rivalries to come on Sunday, a pattern emerges: Only one from all of Rivalry Week boasts two Original 10 members of MLS: the Galaxy vs. San Jose. Despite their bragging rights, the Earthquakes haven't finished above 10th league-wide in a decade. (Enter, quite possibly, Landon Donovan.) Seven of nine Rivalry Week matches feature a side who's entered the league since 2009. Of the Original 10 members, only half boast their original name.

And while many derbies have become naturally heated and hotly contested -- the Hudson River Derby, for one -- some MLS supporters say, at times, it can feel contrived.

For Jeremy Wright, a member of the Timbers Army since their inception in 2001, derbies not only up the ante, but for an American sport that's comparatively in its infancy, they pass pedigree down through generations and cultivate legacies. Liverpool may have only been formed when and because relationships soured within Everton's brass -- but that was 130 years ago. MLS still hasn't turned 30. For Wright, rivalries like Portland and Seattle's -- two of America's most fervent soccer cities -- hinge on the distinct love of one's adopted home, as both are largely transplant cities.

"Once a rivalry becomes just that," says Wright, who moved out to Portland in the late 1990s, "it becomes bigger than the game itself and relevant outside of the sport."

Wright attended friendly watch parties for the 1998 World Cup, which morphed into something more permanent and devoted when the Timbers' revival was announced. In 2001, the reincarnated Timbers (who'd folded a decade prior) hosted the USL A-League iteration of the Seattle Sounders.

"I just remember thinking, right away," Wright says, " 'Wow, these teams don't like each other.' Even now -- I have two kids and sometimes can't take time off for games -- I'll sit here and watch with my girls ... who are booing Seattle."

Wright, who originally hails from Washington, D.C., runs a consulting firm, working in public affairs and political consulting, mostly with school districts and public agencies to pass issuances and procure funding. But the weekends? Those belong to the Timbers. Wright says -- not unlike vast swaths of home turf for MLS faithful -- a Timbers win sets the entire city abuzz.

"I'm on Zoom calls with clients and people are saying, 'Hey, you guys whipped the hell out of Seattle," Wright says. "It's everywhere that Monday."

"But those of us who have been around a while ... we think what the MLS has to be careful of is make sure it doesn't feel manufactured and plastic. You bid for authenticity and [rivalries are] about cultural touchstones that go back farther than a soccer team."

One fan, after a recent NYCFC game, told ESPN: "I appreciate MLS trying to make Rivalry Week a thing -- upping the stakes, making it more than just a game -- but you can't force Columbus to dislike Cincinnati, for example."

"It's such a young league, comparatively," says Wright. "I remember when we'd talk with MLS folks [in the early days] who would say, 'We have to be careful; we don't want to be like the NASL and expand too quickly.'"

The first year of MLS in 1996 saw 10 teams. Five years later, after previously expanding to 12, the league was back to 10. By 2015, it was 20. Next year, it'll be 29, with cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego vying for expansion. Wright has certainly noticed: "There's a new team every year. It's fascinating how that mentality has changed."