Since the inception of the game, soccer has produced a culture based on rivalries. It is a sport that naturally becomes a part of a local community, setting the stage for epic clashes between two teams that represent so much more.
American soccer’s newest rivalry will come to the forefront on Wednesday night as Oklahoma City is split for the very first time.
Following a 10-9 penalty kick shootout victory over Mississippi Brilla on May 18, the USL’s Oklahoma City Energy will take on the NASL’s Rayo OKC in the Third Round of the 2016 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (8 p.m. ET on U.S. Soccer YouTube). The match sees the Energy travel just 13 miles to Miller Stadium for the first edition of a cross-city rivalry that begins with a single-elimination tournament clash.
Naturally, both Energy FC head coach Jimmy Nielsen and Rayo OKC head coach Alen Marcina insist that there is no bad blood between the two sides entering Wednesday’s contest. Just seven competitive games into Rayo OKC’s existence, neither club has had the opportunity to develop any on-field feelings toward the other. However, the U.S. Open Cup clash provides the first chance for a city still forging its soccer identity to create a unique rivalry culture.
“It takes a lot on the field,” Nielsen said. “In this situation here, I think we can bring a lot to the stands as well because the distance between the two teams isn’t that long. Hopefully, we can create a good, funny, happy, intense atmosphere in the stands. That would create a good atmosphere on the field as well. A lot of fun, big games are where the fans really create the atmosphere on the field.”
Oklahoma City Energy head coach Jimmy Nielsen won the 2012 U.S. Open Cup as a player with Sporting KC.
“It’s difficult. It’s two quality teams that are battling,” Marcina added. “Us, and I would imagine them, we take the Open Cup and any official game seriously. A lot of it is generated from fans. This is a big game, but as players and a coaching staff, our focus is on how we perform and how we prepare to get a result.”
For expansion Rayo OKC, the U.S. Open Cup process will be very new. Although Marcina and several of his players have experience in the competition, they have never embarked on a tournament run together as a group.
New Rayo OKC head coach Alen Marcina (pictured) can call upon the likes of former Open Cup campaigners
Richard Menjivar (2012 "Cinderella" run with Cal FC) and Sebastian Velazquez (2013 Finalist with Real Salt Lake).
The Energy are a young club as well, but Nielsen’s side has had that tournament experience. Last season’s U.S. Open Cup run saw the Energy advance to the Fourth Round before a 4-1 loss to Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas. Nielsen, who won the tournament with Sporting KC in 2012, says he still remembers the sting of last year’s defeat, one that the club wants to erase with another deep run in 2016.
As someone who has now been a part of the Oklahoma City soccer community for three years, Nielsen has seen the growth of the game in the city. He’s seen players recognized in the community, and he’s seen local kids become as infatuated with the game as he has.
“We should be proud of where soccer is right now in Oklahoma City,” he said. “Where we started three years ago with professional soccer compared to now, we’re taking huge steps in the right direction. You’re seeing the kids playing in all of the baseball parks because they’re outgrowing other places. We see it every day. We feel it everyday that soccer is growing very fast in Oklahoma City. It’s fantastic to be a part of and see how things are growing.
“I can’t believe I’ve been here for three years now,” the Energy head coach added. “The time has been flying. Most of the time, that means you’re having a good time.”
In its maiden season, Rayo OKC has put together a strong roster featuring notable former Greece international Georgios Samaras.
Having coached the San Antonio Scorpions the past three seasons, Marcina is new to the local scene, but also says he has seen the game develop in his short time in OKC.
The latest step in that development comes Wednesday, in a match that Marcina admits is “unique.” Few American cities boast two teams, and with Oklahoma City sides set to clash for the time, the U.S. Open Cup has become the stage for the first act between the two teams.
“We respect the Energy and what they do and the success their club has had,” Marcina said, “but in terms of preparation, we have nothing but the utmost respect for them and the quality they have on their roster and in their organization. Our guys are going to be prepared like we are for any NASL match. Ultimately, it’s about us stepping on that field and executing our game plan.
“We’re treating every game the same. The added pressure, I don’t think that’s the way to go about things,” Marcina added. “Energy is a very good team and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the coaching staff, their players, their organization. We’re going to put the same amount of work as we do for any opponent and leave it all on the line.”