The rivalry between El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United has been one of the best in the Championship since they each joined the league in 2019, and is set to ramp up once again this campaign. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
Every season, whatever league or club you follow, there are those certain games that immediately jump out of the schedule. The ones where there’s something more than just three points on the line, and victory is a matter of city or state pride in putting one over your club’s big rival.
The USL Championship is no different, with the league’s clubs having built some outstanding rivalries that cover state bragging rights, or that of a region, or simply a long-standing feud that has turned into something more than just a regular game.
The 2022 season brings us another great collection of rivalry clashes, from those with official titles like the LIPAFC or the Copa Tejas to those which have grown into something special. Here are 10 games that fall under that banner you should tune into this year.
The Louisville Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest – to give it its full name – had been firmly tilted in the direction of Louisville City FC for a few years going into the 2021 season. Including a dramatic victory in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, LouCity had reeled off a double-digit undefeated streak against Indy Eleven, but while the Boys in Blue had their struggles last year there was the silver lining of finally claiming the regular season series against their long-time nemesis. Indy’s first victory on the road in Louisville in club history and a late-season victory at Michael A. Carroll Stadium gave Indy the series with a 2-1-1 record. As the schedule reverts to a more conventional pair of matchups in the regular season, the two sides will reconvene at Lynn Family Stadium on the third weekend of the season with what should be a raucous atmosphere across the two sets of supporters.
On paper, the all-time series between Phoenix Rising FC and New Mexico United might not seem like much to write home about. Officially, New Mexico has never defeated Phoenix in four league meetings – Rising FC has a 2-0-2 record – and it took a penalty shootout for United to advance when the teams met in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, officially a draw for the record book. That would belie the intensity that has always come about when these teams have met, though, both on the field and between the two sets of supporters who have travelled in strong numbers to the other’s venue. The memorable moments – including said penalty shootout, or Joey Calistri’s stoppage-time equalizer for Phoenix in 2019 at Isotopes Park – have given matchups between New Mexico and Phoenix an edge, and that makes their first meeting of this new campaign one that will definitely be worth tuning in for.
Rio Grande Valley FC and San Antonio FC have met 20 times in the regular season since they each joined the Championship in 2016, making the South Texas Derby the most frequent contest for either club in their histories. While there have been swings back and forth in their successes, it has resulted in a pretty equitable split overall. San Antonio holds a narrow 7-6 edge in regular season victories with another seven games ending all square, but last year’s edition of the rivalry as the Toros struck out with greater independence after their partnership with Houston Dynamo FC came to an end began what felt like a new chapter for the series. It was certainly helped by some hard-fought contests that delivered real drama, highlighted by Juan Carlos Azocar’s bicycle kick equalizer at Toyota Field, but San Antonio got the last laugh with victory in the first postseason meeting between the clubs in the Western Conference Semifinals. As the Toros and SAFC reconvene in May, there could be plenty more entertainment ahead.
Some rivalries in this league are born in the Championship as new clubs arrive and strike up tension with their fellow clubs. The rivalry between Birmingham Legion FC and Memphis 901 FC? Well, that certainly predates the 2019 arrival of both clubs into the league. With the cities having formerly been home to amateur clubs – Birmingham Hammers and Memphis City FC – the soccer history between the two sets of supporters goes back to 2016 and has carried over into a new era in the Championship. It might fly a little under the radar for many fans elsewhere, but this is a serious grudge, and 901 FC’s series victory a season ago – powered by a first win on the road in Birmingham and last September’s thrilling stoppage-time comeback capped by Raul Gonzalez’s scissor-kick goal at AutoZone Park – should have alerted more people to how good this rivalry can be. As they meet at Legion FC’s new home of Protective Stadium in a midweek clash, it should be well worth tuning in.
When Miami FC joined the USL Championship in 2020, it was natural their renewed rivalry with the Tampa Bay Rowdies – the clubs first played in Miami’s inaugural season in 2016 – would quickly move up the ranks of the league’s rivalries. That didn’t quite manifest in that first season – Tampa Bay comfortably claimed the series with three wins out of four – but this past year the teams sat on a more equal footing, at least when they played one another. Two home victories for Tampa Bay and two home victories for Miami left the series decided in the Rowdies’ favor by goal differential, and with the ambitions both clubs hold that should only intensify this season. Led by new Head Coach Anthony Pulis, Miami is going to be one of the teams looking to take the first-place finish the Rowdies earned a season ago, and the talent both clubs are assembling should make for a pair of great contests, including June’s game in South Florida.
This isn’t the main rivalry for El Paso Locomotive FC – we’ll get to that in a minute – but last season’s matchups between the West Texas club and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC offered a glimpse into a series that could take on major importance both in bragging rights and the Western Conference moving forward. Scheduled to play each other three times this campaign – the two meetings in El Paso arrive on Juley 9 and October 5 – the Switchbacks and Locomotive FC played to three hard-fought draws before El Paso pulled off a comeback victory to rally from two goals down in their final meeting of the season last October at Southwest University Park. After this offseason’s transfer of Macauley King from El Paso to Colorado Springs, and the Switchbacks loading up on more attacking talent after their return to the playoffs last year for the first time in five seasons, there should be plenty of intensity on offer between these two clubs.
Given the proximity of the cities, it was expected that Sacramento Republic FC and Oakland Roots SC would strike up a rivalry upon Roots SC’s arrival in the Championship a year ago. What most didn’t see coming, though, was that the newcomers would get the upper hand on their more established predecessors both on the field and in the Pacific Division standings, with Oakland’s 2-1 victory in their final meeting of the season proving not only the difference in a series that had seen three prior draws, but also in Roots SC earning a postseason berth and Republic FC missing out for the first time in club history. Sacramento appears to be rebuilding strongly so far this offseason, and it will be eager not only to reclaim a place as a contender in the Western Conference standings, but to get a little revenge against its in-state rival. This final of three meetings in the regular season could have a lot at stake for both.
The series between the Charleston Battery and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC might not feel like a rivalry in the conventional sense, but the history the two clubs have shared – facing off against one another 24 times in the Championship over the past 11 seasons – has built a history that longtime fans of the league respect. It has also delivered some memorable contests, too, including last season’s 3-3 draw at Highmark Stadium that saw the Battery come back from a two-goal deficit behind a pair of second-half goals by Claudio Repetto to take the lead before Alex Dixon’s late equalizer earned the Hounds a share of the points. Charleston is looking to get back on an upswing after missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons a year ago under new Head Coach Conor Casey, and they’ll have a familiar face on the other side with former striker Dane Kelly now part of the Hounds’ attack. Those undercurrents should make for an intriguing contest to conclude August.
Since the first meeting between New Mexico United and El Paso Locomotive FC – an entertaining 2-2 draw that saw both sides finish with 10 players – the heat has been turned up high when the two clubs have squared off. The games have been hard-fought – seven of the 11 all-time contests including the postseason have ended in draws – with last season bringing one of the more dramatic editions thanks to Matt Bahner’s goal in the seventh minute of stoppage time at Isotopes Park to pull El Paso level in front of The Curse. New Mexico is retooling for 2022 after missing out on the postseason a year ago and will get an early test when it heads to Southwest University Park for new El Paso Head Coach John Hutchinson’s first home game in charge on March 19. With the postseason drive set to be in full swing in early September, though, the rematch and the passion around it could have a lot at stake for both clubs, which is going to be good news for neutral fans.
It’s a circumstance of the past two seasons, but when you play another club seven times in two seasons it can have the potential to develop into something quickly. When one team – in this case Orange County SC – is coming back as the defending title holder, a claim San Diego Loyal SC would certainly like to lay claim to, then you’ve got some added edge. And if last season’s contests were anything to go by, featuring a comeback victory for both clubs, this is going to be a matchup to keep an eye on when the sides meet three times over the course of the campaign. The final meeting arrives with three weekends to go in the season in Orange County, where there could also be more than just bragging rights on the line as the playoff picture comes into focus.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United San Diego Loyal SC The Miami FC Oakland Roots SC