The Return of the I-4 Derby
Orlando City will host the Tampa Bay Rowdies Wednesday night in the US Open Cup. It's a historic night for multiple reasons, being the first Open Cup match for the Lions in over two years, but more importantly, it's the first showdown with their biggest in-state rivals since 2014.
Orlando City and the Rowdies play almost every season in the preseason, but even if those games were open to fans, a tune-up match is hardly rivalry fodder. This is a proper, meaningful match, and better than that, it's a one-off winner-take all showdown.
This rivalry has been held back by the logistics of soccer. The teams have only played one proper competetive match, that Open Cup showdown in 2014. The Lions then moved to MLS and Tampa Bay eventually became a top-shelf organization in the USL Championship.
The way the sport works, both in the country and around the world, that difference in leagues makes matches almost impossible, and with the Open Cup scheduling, the teams have never met in Orlando's MLS era.
That rarity makes the "I-4 Derby" a weaker rivalry, but also emboldens it in a way. This matchup is almost entirely hypothetical, but there absolutely is some rivarly between the cities of Tampa and Orlando. That almost exclusively manifests itself in the "War on I-4" football rivalry between the Universities of South Florida and Central Florida, but there's a general sense of friendly competition between central Florida's two biggest cities.
This matchup is the only possible professional battle between the two cities, making a rare soccer matchup even rarer and more exciting on a bigger scale. With the regional system of the US Open Cup, I hope this is the start of a near annual rivalry with the Rowdies.
Between the I-4 Derby and the showdown with Cincinnati and Louisville, I hope we see the Open Cup build genuine rivalries between local rivals divided by the league line. In no other sport and in no other competition than a cup do you get this type of matchup and hopefully this is just the first of many.