The Atlantic Cup deserves better than relegation to Wednesdays

The Atlantic Cup deserves better than relegation to Wednesdays

When Major League Soccer began its first season back in 1996, there were a few rivalries that the league attempted to handcraft for TV and for casual fans to latch onto. However, one of the original rivalries in the league didn’t need any manufacturing to organically become the best. When teams from the New York area take on teams from Washington, DC…hate is intrinsic and organically omnipresent.

So, when DC United took the field against the then NY/NJ Metrostars, hate was the central focus. It quickly became the biggest and best rivalry in MLS, appointment TV for years. The rivalry soon gained a name: the Atlantic Cup. In its 29th season, the two teams have competed for the right to hold the Atlantic Cup trophy and the bragging rights. And for the two fanbases, the hate is constant. Even if one team is having a lean year, the trophy represents one of importance that can help make a season’s sting not feel as bad because they can look at that trophy in their case and know they at least have a leg up on their rivals up or down I-95. Even when the Metrostars became the New York Red Bulls, that hate continued. You could change the players on the field and the jerseys and the stadiums…but the Atlantic Cup always meant something to the two teams.

And, it meant something to the league. It was a real rivalry that they could use to promote the league and some of the incredible players that fans considering Major League Soccer could watch on a weekly basis. It had the full attention of everyone in the league. Even in the expansion era, with so many teams gaining important rivalries of their own, the Atlantic Cup was one of the centerpieces on the main table. It was prominent. The league gave it top billing.

So, when DC United and the New York Red Bulls took the field against each other for the 107th time Wednesday night at Audi Field in DC, you could tell that something was missing. Despite there being 17,417 in attendance, the palpable tension that was a required inclusion in this rivalry wasn’t as pronounced. The hype for the match and the rivalry was as muted as it has ever been. Sure, the supporters were animated from the moment the teams took the field for warmups, with the 50+ Red Bull supporters that made the trip on a weeknight trying their best to cheer louder than the mostly full DC United supporters section that was at peak volume.

On the field, the chippiness was there and the desire to win over their rivals was present. Both DC United head coach Troy Lesesne and winger Jared Stroud, both who joined a long line of players and coaches who had competed on both sides of this rivalry last night, expressed the desire for the Black-and-Red to get the fire back and “right the ship” against the Red Bulls, who were unbeaten in the previous 6 contests entering the match. The Red Bulls wanted to maintain their recent dominance against DC, with their fans proclaiming themselves as the DC Haters before and during the match.

But you know who didn’t feel amped for this match and the latest edition of this rivalry? The league office. Smack in the middle of a MLS Rivalry Week that has 2 sets of matchdays occurring on weekends, this important rivalry took place on a Wednesday night, with the league not putting it prominently on national TV or elevating it among some of the other great rivalries it decided to hype. With MLS Rivalry Week concluding this weekend, DC United will hit the road to face Inter Miami while the Hudson River Derby takes center stage. DC United faced Atlanta United last weekend while the Red Bulls hosted the New England Revolution, both on a Rivalry weekend where they could have put this forth as a matchup for league fans to take in. It’s a huge missed opportunity for the league, one that feels deliberate in an effort to hype up rivalries that are considered sexier and more intense.

The return match takes place at Red Bull Arena on June 29th, which is a Saturday at least. Still, it’s one that operates outside of one of the league’s designated rivalry weeks, further solidifying that the Atlantic Cup has been reduced to nothing more than a normal league match in the eyes of many. The rivalry is more important than that, especially to this league who was buoyed for years by its intensity and excitement. Hopefully next season MLS Rivalry Week will see the return of the Atlantic Cup to its roster, but until then both teams continue to provide the fight that has made the Atlantic Cup persevere as one of the league’s best.

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