Fire-St. Louis rivalry a missed opportunity for MLS

MLS placed first-year club St. Louis City in the Western Conference, a move that short-circuited any potential rivalry with the Fire.

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The Fire won’t be visiting St. Louis during the 2023 MLS season.

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They didn’t play, but the Fire lost Tuesday.

When MLS unveiled its schedule and conference alignment for the 2023 season, it placed expansion team St. Louis City in the Western Conference. The Fire remain in the East, and the clubs will play only once this year when they meet May 13 at Soldier Field.

Thanks to MLS placing St. Louis in the opposite conference, the Fire lost a chance at a new main rival, and one that would be in line with others enjoyed by Chicago teams and fans. The Fire could need a new archrival because the Crew now share Ohio with FC Cincinnati, and there are signs Columbus’ main feud is with its intrastate competitor.

As everybody knows, the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry dates back over a century and the franchises’ games are circled on the teams’ calendars. And with the Red Wings’ move to the Eastern Conference, the Blues have become the Blackhawks’ main rival.

Those rivalries haven’t blossomed not only because of geographic proximity, but also because of familiarity and the teams sharing divisions and conferences/leagues. The 1984 “Sandberg Game,” the 1998 home-run race, the epic five-game series between the teams in 2003 and even the infamous Brock-for-Broglio trade had more meaning because the Cubs and Cardinals were competing for the same things. That is also true for the Hawks and Blues, who have had numerous memorable battles in both the regular season and playoffs.

“I think it’s great. In the past you could say Detroit was our No. 1 rival, but that’s probably kind of faded away since they moved to the [Eastern Conference],” Hawks winger Patrick Kane said during their 2016 first-round series against the Blues. “You see it growing with St. Louis because they are in our division. We’ve had a couple of playoff series against them. There’s some hatred and animosity there between the two cities, the fans, players, whatever you want to say. It’s definitely grown.”

It’s hard to see Fire-St. Louis growing to that level with the teams in different conferences.

Other than the regular-season meetings, the teams could play in an MLS Cup final, U.S. Open Cup or Leagues Cup game. But those matches would be rare, and subject to tournament draws and both teams advancing far enough to face off. St. Louis also has a Western Conference rival in Sporting Kansas City, which would make the occasional inter-conference matches with the Fire an undercard for their fans.

Instead of emulating Cubs-Cardinals or Hawks-Blues, this Chicago-St. Louis rivalry could be more in line with Bears-Cardinals and Bears-Rams when the Missouri city had an NFL franchise. Neither the Cardinals nor the Rams were in the Bears’ division and the teams didn’t see each other annually, dulling any potential bad blood.

The Fire, who are understood to be disappointed not to share a conference with St. Louis, did at least get a little consideration from the league. The May 13 date is part of Rivalry Week, a set of games with matches such as New York City FC-New York Red Bulls and Montreal-Toronto.

Unless the Fire and St. Louis eventually find themselves in the same conference, that’s as good as this rivalry can get.

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