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Can the Cosmos comeback spark soccer tribalism in the U.S.?

By Matthew Weiner for CNN
  • New York Cosmos aim to join MLS by 2013
  • Rivalry with Red Bulls will create MLS' greatest derby
  • Local derby could take the MLS to the next level.

London, England (CNN) -- Within soccer culture, allegiance to a team has always been a question of identity; fandom is usually defined as much by the team you don't like as the one you do.

Cities from Buenos Aires to Birmingham have their populations divided over loyalty to a particular club, even though each can be close in distance.

And it's the rivalry and passion of the "local derby" -- where city neighbors such as Manchester United and Manchester City, Al Ahly and Zamalek, Roma and Lazio or Celtic and Rangers meet -- that is such an attractive draw to supporters.

Derby matches are "more than a game" according to Andy Mitten, author of "Mad For It: From Blackpool to Barcelona, Football's Greatest Rivalries."

"From the high theatrical drama of Rome's Il Derbi Capitale to El Gran Classico in Madrid, they are football's most intense encounters," Mitten added.

Strange then that in a nation which boasts famous derbies in other disciplines -- the Giants and Jets in the NFL or the Mets and Yankees in the MLB, for example -- America is almost completely lacking in the derby dimension when it comes to soccer.

However, the revival of the once legendary New York Cosmos side could be about to change all that.

That's the hope of Terry Byrne, the director of football of the Cosmos, who is currently bidding to become Major League Soccer's 20th franchise and, crucially, a side to rival the city's current side New York Red Bulls.

Rivalry within sport is a good thing, and I believe the MLS would welcome one in New York
--New York Cosmos Director of Football Terry Byrne

The New York Cosmos -- a team which featured global superstars such as Pele, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer during its 1970s pomp -- has recently been brought back from the dead by a group of investors. Should this once iconic club be successful in its application for MLS membership, it could create the biggest derby in U.S. soccer.

Byrne, who was previously David Beckham's manager, is negotiating to have the Cosmos accepted into MLS by 2013. He feels a New York derby could be just the thing to boost soccer rivalry in the U.S.

"Rivalry within sport is a good thing, and I believe the MLS would welcome one in New York," Byrne told CNN. "The League has it in Los Angeles where you have Galaxy and Chivas sharing their stadium and city, and the games between those two teams always create a fantastic atmosphere and a healthy rivalry."

The proposal of a rivalry within New York is something that is warmly supported by the MLS. "We are very focused on trying to have that 20th team in New York, a second team in New York, a rival for the Red Bulls," commissioner Don Garber said recently. "We have got a lot of work to do to achieve that. We may or may not achieve that, but that is our goal and our main focus for the 20th team."

Even the Red Bulls are embracing the idea. "We like the competitiveness. We can't say we don't like when there's another team here. We want to have combativeness, so if there's another team coming, we will be better,'' Dietmar Beiersdorfer, head of Red Bull global soccer, said at the July press conference for Thierry Henry.

According to Fox Soccer's senior writer Jamie Trecker, the kind of passion you see at football matches in England, Spain and Italy is precisely what's sorely lacking in U.S. soccer. "The kind of rivalries we expect when we talk about Arsenal versus Tottenham or Manchester United versus Manchester City doesn't exist," he says.

"All American teams with a few exceptions are new -- we're a country that is constantly building and moving and changing sports teams. The passion and connection that fans have to teams only exists towards our college teams."

Byrne, however, believes the introduction of the New York Cosmos into the MLS could help conjure exactly that kind of local friction. "The Red Bulls have done a fantastic job within their new stadium out in New Jersey and we believe the City of New York would welcome a similar stadia and team within its city," he says, highlighting the fact that the Red Bulls would be out-of-towners compared to his Cosmos who plan to locate in the heart of the city. And with that, the one-upmanship -- the essential fuel for a local derby -- has only just begun...