by Ryan Bailey
CHARLOTTE — From the moment of its inception, Charlotte MLS has had a de facto rival. “Screw that city!” proclaimed David Tepper on the podium at the team’s announcement, referring to Atlanta and its eminently successful soccer franchise.
Soccer clubs are often defined by local rivalries, and Charlotte MLS has certainly laid down the gauntlet with its neighbor down I-85.
Not all soccer rivalries, however, are based on proximity. Real Madrid and Barcelona, for example, play their home matches nearly 400 miles apart, and are bitter rivals due to their battle for supremacy in Spain. In the Premier League, distant foes Crystal Palace and Brighton contest the “Eagle-Seagull derby” due to a feud between their respective coaches in the 1970s.
Charlotte MLS will also have a predetermined non-local rival when it starts play in 2021, as the city shares a nickname with Cincinnati: both are known as “The Queen City.”
Thus, we have ourselves a very regal rivalry.
Charlotte and Cincinnati have clashed in other sporting arenas, but now they will meet in Major League Soccer, where heated battles are held at such a premium that an annual Rivalry Week sees bitter enemies paired off with one another.
So, how did both cities end up being fit for a queen? Charlotte is named for Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. Upon the city’s incorporation in 1768, British subjects sought favor with the King by naming the city after his wife. She hailed from the German region of Mecklenburg, which inspired the name of the county in which Charlotte is situated.
Cincinnati, on the other hand, did not get its moniker from an actual queen at all. The city was referred to as the “Queen of the West” in a newspaper article not long after it was incorporated in 1819, and was informally known as the Queen City during its infancy.
(For those keeping score, Charlotte’s nickname actually comes from a real Queen and it has been in use for half a century longer. Advantage: Charlotte.)
The rivalry has earned prominence in NFL, notably in 2014 when the Carolina Panthers’ visit to the Cincinnati Bengals was hyped as “The Queen City Bowl.’’ The royally named cities couldn’t be separated on that day, as proceedings ended in a rare 37-37 tie, but the Panthers took the crown in 2018 with a 31-21 win at Bank of America Stadium, giving the Carolina side a 3-2-1 lead in the series.
More recently, the rivalry was inadvertently evoked by the President of the United States, who glowingly referred to the Queen City during a speech in Charlotte a few weeks ago. Donald Trump, however, was referring to the other Queen City….
— WCCB Charlotte's CW (@WCCBCharlotte) February 7, 2020
The Queen City rivalry will be new to MLS in 2021, but it will not actually be new to soccer.
FC Cincinnati faced the Charlotte Independence regularly when both teams played in the USL Division. In 2016, before their first encounter, a physical Queen City Cup was produced, to be awarded to the aggregate winner of the two-game series each season.
— Laurel Pfahler (@LaurelPfahler) March 23, 2016
Charlotte were the guests for Cincinnati’s first-ever home match at Nippert Stadium, in April 2016, which resulted in a 2-1 victory for the hosts. “It was a great atmosphere,” says Charlotte MLS Community Engagement Manager Jorge Herrera, who played for the Independence throughout the Queen City Cup rivalry.
The Independence earned a 3-2 win in the return leg, during which Herrera scored the winning goal with an 85th-minute free kick. “That was a hugely significant game because it put us in the playoffs for the first time,” says Herrera.
Although the win emphatically sent the Independence into the postseason, it sent the inaugural Queen City Cup to Cincy, on an away goal tiebreaker from a 4-4 aggregate scoreline.
The feisty nature of the rivalry saw its origins in this game, where the home supporters lambasted the controversial treatment of an internet-famous gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo in their chants. ”Our supporters started singing ‘If we ran a zoo, there’s one thing we’d not do, and that’s shoot Harambe,’” says Independence Director of Communications James Thomas.
In the 2017 season, FC Cincinnati retained the cup by an aggregate 2-1 scoreline, but the USL silverware was indefinitely retained in the Carolinas thanks to a victory for the Independence in the 2018 series.
“We won the home game 4-1 and it was by far the best game of the season,” says Herrera, who provided a superb backheel assist on the third goal. It was a surprise victory over the eventual league champions, and a very chippy affair which may set the tone for future MLS encounters.
“Matches between the Charlotte Independence and FC Cincinnati always felt intense,” says fan Ben Goshorn. “You could sense that the players raised their game when the two clubs met.”
A 2-0 win for Cincinnati in the away leg resulted in a 4-3 aggregate series win for the southern Queen City, who took the trophy back home on their flight to Charlotte. “That’s the only trophy I won in my time at the club, so it was special,” says Herrera.
MLS boasts plenty of rivalry cups, some of which are not geographic or nickname-based in origin. Columbus Crew and Toronto FC, for example, contest the Trillium Cup, as trillium is the official wildflower of Ohio and the Canadian province of Ontario.
The Seattle Sounders and the San Jose Earthquakes, meanwhile, compete for the Heritage Cup as both sides brought their names through from the NASL-era of the 1970s and 1980s.
While Atlanta sits high on the trash talk list, Charlotte soccer fans are savoring the idea of a heated matchup with the Queen City to the north.
“One of the things I’m most looking forward to about the launch of Charlotte MLS is the natural rivalries that we’ll have from day one,” says Mint City Collective Podcast co-host Corey Inscoe. “There’s that city to the south, and I imagine that will be the biggest rivalry, but Cincinnati will be right there with Queen City bragging rights on the line.”
“Only one of them was actually named after a queen,” notes Inscoe.
The prospect of a Queen City rivalry is also stirring fans in Cincinnati ahead of a potential 2021 meeting. “I’ll never forget the goal scored by FCC’s Sean Okoli back in 2016,” says Nick Seuberling, creator of Cincy Soccer Talk. “That goal set the tone and turned the heads of a lot of fans that day in the Queen City. And yes—ask any Cincinnatian and they’ll tell you that the real Queen City is in Ohio!”
FC Cincinnati supporters have earned a reputation for being good hosts, who will happily share a tailgate with their foes before a game. But when it comes to this derby, they are looking forward to encouraging the gamesmanship on the field of play.
“We pride ourselves on being involved and loud,” says Travis Grimes of the You Ain’t Lion podcast. “We’ve had opposing players comment on how the FCC home atmosphere plays a big part.”
“And yes, we, Cincinnati, are the true Queen City. Always have been, always will be.”
Much like Charlotte MLS, FC Cincinnati has a local rival separated by a stretch of interstate. A little over 100 miles of I-71 separates them from Columbus Crew, with whom they have contested the “Hell Is Real” derby since they first met in the US Open Cup in 2017.
Hence, the two Queen Cities may not initially be each other’s primary antagonists, but they certainly have the potential to make this rivalry a truly majestic affair.