A rivalry is born
By MICHAEL LEWIS
LAKELAND -- JP Reyes knows about rivalries and how it can pump up the adrenaline, including his own.
The Florida Tropics defender remembers when he was traded by the Rochester Lancers to the Syracuse Silver Knights towards the end of the 2011-2012 Major Indoor Soccer League season.
Reyes took the 80-mile trip for his first game in Rochester since the deal on Feb. 12, 2012.
"It was interesting," he said. "I went from Rochester and being in a healthy place and being released and traded to Syracuse because of differences with the coach and we still had one game left against Rochester. I left it all on the field with that game. We were fortunate to win that game."
That match turned into a satisfying 23-9 win for Reyes and the Silver Knights.
Fast forward some eight years and Reyes will hope for another victory that will make him and his teammates happy when the Tropics host the Orlando SeaWolves in the first encounter between the two teams at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland, Florida on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. ET.
"The rivalry is there," Reyes said. "The elbows are going to be thrown, it still hasn't gone away. This is going to be serious, for sure. ... Maybe not initially, but it will definitely grow."
Tropics Chief Operating Officer and co-owner Chris Economides called it "the War on I-4" since the teams are separated by 56 miles on Interstate 4 in Central Florida. Economides admitted that line has been used before in sports confrontations between teams from that neck of the woods, but he is hoping a Tropics-SeaWolves rivalry will grow and perhaps flourish.
"Because of the proximity of the two franchises obviously we are hoping to get some fans to move back and forth," said Economides. "When there's such close geographic rivals, you're hoping that you can build up a foundation of a rivalry by some of the players knowing each other and just being close to each other. There really hasn't been anything so far."
Saturday night's confrontation will be the first of six matches between the teams, with each team playing three home and three away matches.
"When you play somebody that many times, something's bound to happen," Economides said. "There's nothing really right now. It's not anything different than playing Milwaukee or playing Baltimore or playing Harrisburg so far other than they're close to us. I'm hoping that something will spark, something will trigger some sort of rivalry due to the proximity."
Actually, Reyes claimed the seeds were planted already for a nice, healthy rivalry.
"In the sense that they want to take ownership of the being the better Florida team from my intuition."
Reyes saw the expansion SeaWolves as interlopers to the Tropics, who have called the Tampa area home since the 2016-17 MASL season.
Reyes noted that the SeaWolves, who are owned by former Cedar Rapids Rampage owner Chris Kokalis, have signed nine players from that defunct MASL team. The Rampage reached the playoffs last season.
"So, there's that sense of entitlement that they did well last year along with that insecurities of being the new team," said Reyes.
Reyes has ties to the Orlando soccer community, having grown up in Orlando and performed with the Orlando Sharks professional indoor team in 2007-08. He added that he helped out the Sea Wolves get organized on the field when they were signing players.
"I was pretty much involved when they were doing all the announcing of the players and suggestions and all of that because I want the team to be successful," he said. "We even played an amateur indoor soccer team season before our MASL season started. I played with them and helped them to understand the patterns and rotations just because they had no coach hired."
That was prior to the team hiring Tom Traxler, who was the Orlando City SC television analyst, as head coach.
"He's been around the Orlando community," Reyes said "Here's a lot of good points there. It's inevitable once the rivalry heats up. Rochester-Syracuse, Milwaukee-Chicago, all those rivalries are so inevitable because they are so close."
And perhaps some other factors --- both owners Orlando's Kokalis and Florida's Dr. Panagiotis Lakovidis have Greek backgrounds, so pride could be at stake.
"There's also that Greek mentality going into it, that competitiveness amongst each other," Reyes said. "There's definitely something there."
Economides knows something about some fierce rivalries, even though it was from his days when he was with the Rochester Rhinos.
When asked about his most memorable derby, Economides replied, "Easy question. Rochester-Montreal."
He then laughed before becoming serious.
"I talk to my good friend, Joey Saputo once in a while," Economides said about the Montreal Impact (Major League Soccer) president, whose team once played in the A-League and United Soccer League. "We talk about the old days and I think if you ask him, we were like the Yankees and the Red Sox. We were like the Patriots and Jets, whatever you want to call it. It wasn't a dislike, it was a hate. But from that came a mutual respect."
Economides said he and Saputo became good friends, but not before some history was made on and off the field.
"Montreal was always the top dog," Economides said. "They were always winning championships and having a great record. We came into the league and all of a sudden back in 1996 we're smashing attendance records. What would always happen is that we would normally lose to them during the regular season but somehow in the playoffs, we actually beat them. And then they would be even more frustrated. I remember having games at Frontier Field where it was just bench-clearing brawls, coach Valerio Gazzola accusing us of turning the lights up [to blind his players], just stupid stuff. At the time it made you livid. You look back at it now, it's like hilarious."
The Rhinos were stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border enough times that head coach Pat Ercoli was convinced that Saputo knew somebody at the border and "give us a hard time," according to Economides.
Whether the Tropics-Sea Wolves rivalry becomes a full-fledged derby on the level of Rochester-Montreal and some other intriguing confrontations, only time will tell. It’s early in the season, although both teams are fighting for two playoff spots in the South Central Division. Orlando is 2-3 and Florida 1-2.
"We're competitive, the other organization is competitive,” Reyes said.
"Obviously I'm biased for the Tropics because that's the team I'm playing for, that's the team I represent. So, I definitely think we have the upper hand by far. They're a new team. They're coming into our house Saturday night. We're going to try to do everything to smash them because that's the expectation: we should have as a winner's mentality."
We'll all start finding out with Chapter One on Saturday night.
(Michael Lewis is a long-time soccer writer who writes a weekly column for the Major Arena Soccer League.)