CPL rivalries are taking shape

The inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League is quickly coming to a close. The first portion of the season has been decided, the Championship Final is set and the first games by a CPL team on the international stage have been played.

With the passing of that much time, rivalries are bound to be forming by now. And not just the labeled ones that we were prepared for at the beginning of the season, like the 905 Derby or Al Classico. I mean rivalries that have developed throughout the season, based on results, on-pitch encounters, tight standings and other factors.

To see where we stand in this regard, I conducted a small survey among CPL fans, on who they consider their team’s biggest rivals. In this blog I will present to you the most interesting findings I collected from the data.

This blog is a condensed version of the full article I have written on this research. The full report includes more extensive data analyses, references to scientific articles on the topic of rivalries and more elaborate conclusions. Please feel free to have a look.

Know Rivalry

The inspiration for this research comes from a large scale project by authors B. David Tyler and Joe B. Cobbs, who have manifested themselves as leading experts in the field of sports rivalries. Their immense research project, known as Know Rivalry, has shed a very interesting light on rivalries in many leagues.

Without going into too much detail on their data and methodology – I highly recommend you take a look for yourself on their website – I will quickly go through some of their measures, which will come back in this article and my analysis.

Rivalry points

The main component from the original research which I used in my survey is the concept of rivalry points. Tyler and Cobbs describe this concept and the approach as follows:

The survey asked respondents to allocate 100 “rivalry points” across opponents of his or her favorite team. For instance, if John’s favorite team is the Springfield Isotopes, he may choose to allocate 60 points to the Shelbyvillians, whom he considers to be the Isotopes’s strongest rival, 30 points to the Norsemen, another opposing team he considers to be a rival of the Isotopes, and 10 points to the Woodchucks, a third opponent. Maria is another Isoptopes fan, and she chooses to allocate all 100 points to the Norsemen, the only team she considers to be a rival.

To get a view of the rivalries within the CPL, this concept was used in my survey as well:

  • Respondents were asked who their favorite CPL team is.
  • 100 rivalry points were given, to be distributed among the biggest rivals of your team.

Rivalry score and rivalry dyad score

With the rivalry points allocated, a rivalry score and rivalry dyad score can be calculated. These concepts are described as follows by Tyler and Cobbs:

The rivalry score is calculated by taking the average point total toward a rival from all a team’s respondents. The maximum rivalry score is 100, which would mean all respondents listed that team as the lone rival. In our example above, the rivalry score for the Norsemen would be 65, which is the average of John’s 30 points and Maria’s 100 points.

The rivalry dyad score (or ‘aggregate score’) is calculated by adding respondents’ average rivalry score toward a particular opponent to the opposing average score of that opponent’s fans. In our example above, if the Norsemen fans held a rivalry score of 50 for the Isotopes, the rivalry dyad score for Isotopes-Norseman would be 115 (65 from Isotopes fans toward the Norseman, and 50 from the Norseman toward the Isotopes).

These two concepts are used in the upcoming analysis to determine two important things:

  • Biggest rival per team – The opponent to which the fans of a particular team gave the highest rivalry score.
  • Biggest rivalries in the league – The combinations of 2 teams which accumulated the highest rivalry dyad score.

There is a third aspect which I will look at, also present in the original research, which is the most lopsided (or unbalanced) rivalries. This is calculated by finding the biggest gap between the rivalry scores within a dyad (i.e. in the Isotopes-Norseman example above, the gap would be 65 – 50 = 15).

The collected data

In total 299 respondents completed the survey. Due to various reasons, some responses had to be excluded, bringing the final sample to 277.

Favorite team

In terms of the sample’s favorite CPL team, we see that most respondents are Forge FC fans. I’m afraid that a small case of selection bias crept into the data here: as a Forge FC fan myself, my (primarily Twitter) network consists of mainly Forge FC fans.

I am happy to see however that the survey did reach the other teams’ fan bases as well, giving me at least 20 respondents per team. Not the most solid sample sizes perhaps, but for the purpose of this analysis I would say it’s sufficient.

Figure 1
Number of respondents per team.

Type of supporter

To see what kind of fans we are dealing with, some additional questions were included in the questionnaire:

  • Have you attended a game by your favorite team this season?
  • Are you a season ticket holder?
  • Are you part of the supporters group?

The following data was collected from these questions:

Figure 2
The 3 measures taken to find out more about the degree of fandom from the respondents.

Your team’s biggest rival

This first part of this analysis is rather straightforward: we determine who each team’s biggest rival is. This is a one-sided relationship, meaning that team A can see team B as the biggest rival, regardless of how team B views team A. The below table includes all the rivalry scores within the CPL.

Figure 3
Rivalry score given by fans of team in ROW to team in COLUMN.
For example: York9 FC fans give Forge FC 84.8 points, Forge FC fans give York9 FC 34.4 points.

The biggest one-sided (not meaning lopsided necessarily) rivalry in the CPL is that of York9 FC fans towards Forge FC: a whopping 84.8 of their available 100 rivalry points were reserved for this match-up. Just as the league drew it up when introducing the 905 Derby

The other labeled derby, Al Classico, is also strongly represented: FC Edmonton fans allocated 84.3 of their available 100 rivalry points to fellow Albertans Cavalry FC.

Interestingly enough, Forge FC and Cavalry FC don’t reciprocate this rivalry, as they have reserved most of their available rivalry points for each other: Forge FC fans give 61.3 points to Cavalry FC and the other way around we see 49.1 points being handed out.

Spread of the data

The spread of the various scores is rather interesting to see as well. By plotting the 6 scores gained from the 7 different fan bases, you can clearly see which supporters have the most outspoken opinions at the moment:

Figure 4
Spread of the rivalry scores given by fans of the CPL teams.

In the above graph we see that the 3 teams we haven’t mentioned yet – Pacific FC, HFX Wanderers FC and Valour FC – all target different teams as their biggest rivals, but in terms of points allocated they are far less outspoken than the other teams, spreading their points out more. Valour FC’s biggest rival – FC Edmonton – doesn’t even get more than 21.1 rivalry points.

Difference in approaches

A funny thing came up when I discussed the collected data with my wife. As a Forge FC fan herself, she also completed the survey and she told me that she allocated at least 5 points to each of the 6 competitors. When asked why, she stated: “All of the teams are rivals. They all play each other and therefore they can all take points away from Forge.

I went into the data to see how many people had the same approach as my wife and allocated points to multiple teams:

  • 41 respondents (14.8%) gave 100 points to a single team
  • 128 respondents (46.2%) divided 100 points over 2 teams
  • 48 respondents (17.3%) divided 100 points over 3 teams
  • 20 respondents (7.2%) divided 100 points over 4 teams
  • 5 respondents (1.8%) divided 100 points over 5 teams
  • 35 respondents (12.6%) divided 100 points over all 6 teams

This spread shows that people approach the word rivalry differently.

Some simply see a rival as a team that can stand in their way of triumph, regardless of whether they are underdogs or favorites in that match-up. My wife is a good example of this type of thinking, when she gave all teams in the league at least some rivalry points. Turns out she is not alone in this kind of thinking, since 12.6% of all respondents followed a similar pattern.

Clearly 1 or 2 teams can still stand out, even if someone sees all teams as rivals. Among the 35 respondents to allocate rivalry points to all teams, the biggest rival still received 42.3 points on average.

At the other extreme, you have the fans who approach the term rivalry with a bit more emotion. Just 1 or 2 teams get the label “rival” put on them. The remaining teams, even if they could potentially stand in your way of the title, are not considered important enough to allocate rivalry points to. In total 61.0% of the respondents gave points to just 1 or 2 teams, putting them firmly at this edge of the spectrum.

Biggest rivalry of the league

At the start of the season two earlier mentioned rivalries in the CPL got a lot of attention: the match-up between Forge FC and York9 FC (dubbed the 905 Derby) and Al Classico, featuring the teams from Alberta, FC Edmonton and Cavalry FC. Both of these rivalries were based primarily on one specific factor: geography

The Story of Al Classico: a great article by Dallas Walker, outlining how this rivalry started in a pub and has now made it to the CPL-stage.

Many studies into the topic of rivalries have put geography front and center as one of the most important factors. Many of the most fiercely labeled rivalries from the Know Rivalry study are between teams from the same region. It was therefore definitely not a long shot to expect the Ontarian and Albertan derbies to be rather fierce in the inaugural season.

The two Great North rivalries

The two rivalries above were determined and labeled even before the first ball was kicked. So although they have strong geographic merit, it could very well be that the data will show a different picture. 

To determine the biggest CPL rivalries, we turn to the rivalry dyad scores gained from the survey. Quick reminder: that’s the rivalry score given by team A to team B and the rivalry score given by team B to team A, aggregated. The following table includes all the rivalries in the CPL:

Figure 7
All the 21 rivalry dyads in the CPL, season 2019.

Well, the CPL office clearly knew what they were doing, when branding the Cavalry FC – FC Edmonton and Forge FC – York9 FC match-ups as special occasions before the season: they sit atop the leaderboard of biggest rivalries. 

There are other reasons besides geography that could explain these rivalries however. Relative dominance could be one for example:

  • Cavalry FC has beaten FC Edmonton 3 times so far this season, one game ended in a draw (and one game left to play).
  • Forge FC has beaten York9 FC 3 times so far this season, one game ended in a draw (and one game left to play) .

This reason seems to hold even more ground when we realize that in both rivalry dyads, the majority of the points come from the team being dominated (FC Edmonton accounts for 63.9% of the points, York9 FC for 71.1% in their respective rivalries).

Not just a soccer thing

There are certain defining elements that form a rivalry according to researchers Tyler and Cobbs that cannot be linked to the CPL just yet:

  • Frequency of competition can’t be much of an influencer yet, since the above mentioned teams will have met each other just 5 times after the first season of play.
  • Historical parity isn’t in play yet, due to the lack of history from the league and its teams.
  • Unfairness might not be a CPL-specific factor yet, because not many – large – decisions have been labeled as “unfair” yet.

The Edmonton/Calgary and Hamilton/Toronto rivalries could however be fueled by other sports. The above factors could be linked to the city dyads.

Take the CFL for example. Although there is no data on this league in the Know Rivalry study, there is a thing called the Labour Day Classics: geographically matched games, which are played every year during the long Labour Day weekend. These match-ups include:

  • The Edmonton Eskimos versus the Calgary Stampeders (series tied at 29-29-1).
  • The Hamilton Tiger-Cats versus the Toronto Argos (Tiger-Cats lead 35-13-1).

Next to these games, these teams meet each other on other occasions during the season as well, possibly even in the postseason. It might not be soccer, but these games could add some frequency of competition, historical parity and unfairness to the mix.

For the Edmonton versus Calgary match-up there is another dyad we can take, this time coming from Know Rivalry data from the NHL: the Edmonton Oilers versus the Calgary Flames. The combined rivalry score of this head-to-head is 117.55 (Calgary gives Edmonton 37.55, Edmonton gives Calgary 80.00). This would be ranked the 3rd fiercest rivalry in NHL, but due to the fact that there is not yet enough data from Edmonton fans, the dyad is not officially ranked.

The other rivalry

If you have not followed the CPL this season, the 3rd biggest rivalry on the list might come as a surprise to you. However, there are good reasons why Cavalry FC coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. went on Sportsnet 960 and labeled his team versus Forge FC as “the best rivalry in the CPL”. Before we dive into the reasoning behind this, a short summary of their encounters so far:

Due to scheduling changes, the two sides haven’t met that often in the Fall portion of the season (the teams will meet each other 2 times in their last 3 matches). However, they have been neck-and-neck to the finish line, clearly dominating the rest of the field. They are now set to meet in the first ever CPL Final, giving yet another dimension to this rivalry.

This is the first CPL match-ups that could actually be influenced by the element frequency of competition. The teams will meet 5 times during the regular season, they played each other twice in the Canadian Championship and they will play both in Hamilton and Calgary for the 2019 CPL Championship. A total of 9 games, the most of any dyad in the CPL.

As you saw in the short summary of their head-to-head competition so far, there has been no shortage of defining moments either. Both teams lost their first home game to each other, they met in their first ever national cup campaign, they are fighting for the top spot in the table and soon one will be the first ever champion, whilst the other one will be the first loser of a CPL Championship final.

Parity (simply recent, as historical doesn’t apply to the CPL yet) is clearly in the mix as well. Nearing the end of the 2019 campaign, both teams sit far ahead of the rest of the pack in the league standing, having opened up a 20+ point gap between 2nd and 3rd position. Additionally,  they’ve handed each other a loss twice so far, each time with just 1 goal separating them (with 4 head-to-heads remaining over the upcoming weeks).

Even the unfairness element could be argued to be of relevance here, especially from the Forge FC side, as the above described ending to the 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Canadian Championship match-up was seen as unfair by many and sparked chants of “ref you suck!” for the first time at Tim Hortons Field (during a CPL game at least).

As you can see, it is no wonder that the Cavalry coach labeled this rivalry as “the best” and that many fans have followed suit on social media and in the stands. The Cavalry FC – Forge FC rivalry is made up of many different layers and that is only after the first season of the league’s existence.

No other rivalries (yet)

As you saw in the overview above, the 4th ranked rivalry falls very far behind the top 3: HFX Wanderers FC versus Pacific FC only scores 46.6 points combined. The divide between the top 3 and the rest becomes most clear when you look at how the overall available 700 points (7 teams times 100 points) have been distributed:

  • The top 3 rivalries account for 361.6 rivalry points combined, 51.7% of the total.
    • Cavalry FC fans already allocated 96.8 of their available points.
    • Forge FC fans already allocated 95.7 of their available points.
    • York9 FC fans already allocated 84.8 of their available points.
    • Edmonton FC fans already allocated 84.3 of their available points.
  • The remaining 338.4 points have to be allocated across the remaining 18 rivalries (18.8 on average for each rivalry dyad).

As we saw before, when looking at the spread of the data, the other teams – Pacific FC, HFX Wanderers FC and Valour FC – did not have an outspoken #1 rival yet, dividing their points more equally across all teams. This feeds right into the fact that there are no more than 3 really outspoken and fierce rivalries yet in the CPL.

Barking up the wrong tree

As mentioned earlier on, some rivalries are (extremely) unbalanced. One-sided hatred so to say. One possible reason why a team might bolster unreciprocated animosity towards a rival, is because winners and losers act and feel differently. Take the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots in the NFL for example. Between 2010 and the start of this year’s NFL season they have met 8 times (twice in the postseason) and the Colts haven’t won a single game. 

It can very well be that the Colts’ faithful grew some unkind feelings towards the Patriots, which could be accounted towards defining moments (being knocked out of the playoffs), star factor (Tom Brady outshining the Colts’ quarterback), relative dominance (0-from-8) or unfairness (anyone remember Deflategate?).

It looks as if the fans of the Patriots however don’t feel the same things towards the Colts. For them the win in the 2015 AFC Championship Game (45-7 over the Colts) wasn’t defining, the win in the 2015 Super Bowl two weeks later was. And relative dominance is bound to be less of a rivalry inducing factor if you are always on the winning side.

No, the fans of the Patriots care much more about their division-rival the New York Jets (45.05 rivalry points), due to reasons such as frequency of competition (they meet twice a year, at least), geography and cultural differences (Boston versus New York is fun in all sports). 

One-sided CPL rivalries

In the CPL we find a few cases of lopsided rivalries as well. However, there are no heavy discrepancies yet between teams, since even the highscore of 50.4 would not make it into the top 10 of most lopsided rivalries from Know Rivalry data.

Figure 9
All the CPL rivalries, ranked on lopsidedness.

The 905 Derby has been popping up a lot in this research. Before we already saw that the animosity of the York9 FC fans towards Forge FC is the biggest of all and that the two-sided rivalry is ranked 2nd, only after the Al Classico. These two facts together don’t make it surprising that we see it as a lopsided rivalry here as well:

  • York9FC fans allocate 84.8 rivalry points to Forge FC.
  • Forge FC fans “only” allocate 34.4 rivalry points to Forge FC.
  • Causing a 50.4 points gap between the two sides.

The lopsidedness of this rivalry in many ways replicates the reasoning behind the unequal Patriots – Colts rivalry.  The York9 FC faithful might see Forge FC as their big rival due to the latter’s relative dominance (York9 FC has just a single game left this season to win their first against Forge FC), whilst Forge FC fans are much more focused on the many reasons why Cavalry FC is their main competitor. The geographical component (what gave name to the 905 Derby) as well as the potential cultural differences between Hamilton and Toronto is what seems to keep these 2 teams so closely bonded in the end.

Big bully on the block

Diving into the Know Rivalry research again, we encounter something interesting: 3 teams showed up in the top 10 most lopsided match-ups of their respective sports 3 times, each time being on the smaller side of the equation:

  • St. Louis Cardinals (MLB) vs. Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals.
  • LA Lakers (NBA) vs. Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns.
  • New York Red Bulls (MLS) vs. Philadelphia Union, New York City FC and New England Revolution.

One of the reasons why they may overlook their rivals, is because they are simply preoccupied with a bigger fish to fry, not leaving enough rivalry points to give to others (tying in with the reasoning behind Patriot fans not being bothered by the Colts):

  • St. Louis Cardinals fans allocated 49.63 points to the Chicago Cubs (aggregate: 114.42).
  • LA Lakers fans allocate 46.21 points to the Boston Celtics (aggregate: 90.67).
  • New York Red Bulls fans allocate 56.33 points to D.C. United (aggregate: 124.21).

In the CPL, the role of “big bully” is played by Cavalry FC and Forge FC, who appear near the top of the list in figure 9 a lot, almost exclusively as the team that is being hated on more. Many reasons can be at the root of this, an interesting one being star factor.

In Player or Team of the Week discussions, Cavalry FC and Forge FC often play the biggest role. Take the tweet by Kurt Larson (OneSoccer analyst) for example: he argues that teams other than Cavalry FC and Forge FC will have a hard time getting a player into the Team of the Season. This ties in to the element of star factor, seeing as other team’s fans might be growing jealous of the top 2’s strong rosters.

The other way around (as we saw with the Patriots towards the Colts), Cavalry FC and Forge FC don’t put too much energy into the lower-table teams, focusing their rivalry efforts elsewhere, causing the lopsidedness to grow.

Most (and least) feared of all

One last aspect worth looking into is how often people gave any points (regardless of it being 1 or 100) to a certain team. Receiving any amount of points shows that you are feared to some degree by opposing fans. Or looking at the flip-side: receiving 0 points means you are not seen as a threat at all.

In a sense, this measure depicts the league-wide view on a certain team: what percentage of fans from the other teams see you as a rival, to any degree?

Figure 10
The % of fans of team in ROW that gave 0 points to team in COLUMN.
For example: 100.0% of Cavalry FC fans gave 0 points to HFX Wanderers FC, whilst 15.00% of HFX Wanderers FC fans gave 0 points to Cavalry FC. The % in Total-column indicates the overall % of fans that gave team in COLUMN 0 points.

Only 14.5% of all respondents that are not Cavalry FC supporters (36 out of 249 in total, excluding the 28 Cavalry FC fans) gave this team 0 points. It’s interesting to see that from the team they will meet in the final – Forge FC – only 3 out of 112 (2.7%) gave Cavalry FC 0 points (all 3 of them had 100 points reserved for York9 FC), and that none of the 36 FC Edmonton fans gave their fellow Albertans 0 points.

Cavalry FC are the winners of the Spring season, are top of the overall standings, are the team to score the most goals, are the first to qualify for the CPL Finals, have the first Canadian National Men’s Team call-up from the CPL. In other words: they got things going for themselves. And it appears that that scares people.

On the other side of the spectrum you have 3 teams that aren’t causing the rest much sleepless nights: Pacific FC (72.3% gave 0 points), Valour FC (76.2%) and HFX Wanderers (78.2%) are the most left out teams when fans answer the question “who is your biggest rival?”. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise if you look at their results so far:

  • Closing in on the end of the season, these teams occupy the bottom 3 spots in the standings.
  • Of the 47 games played against Cavalry FC, Forge FC, FC Edmonton and York9 FC so far, they have won just 8, losing 27.

I’m sorry to say this, but I think that results need to pick up for these teams to really get other team’s fans to start worrying about you. But then again, Ajax fans never thought much of De Graafschap either until that dreadful day in May 2016, when a 1-1 draw against the 17th ranked team cost them the Dutch title…

The stage is set for seasons to come

Rivalries are clearly starting to form. Regardless of what team you support, some sort of animosity towards 1 or 2 other clubs is taking shape. And if you’re just a neutral soccer fan, some interesting match-ups are sure to grace next season’s schedule again.

As the CPL will continue to grow, more and more rivalries will appear. A Saskatoon Derby, several Ontarian match-ups, perhaps the introduction of a former USL team (Ottawa Fury) against whom everybody will want to state their case. It’s going to be interesting to see what will develop over the next few years.

I’ve written an article about the future of the league, in which possible expansions, playoff formats, a Canadian Super Cup and much more is discussed in depth.

The results in the first few years will likely have their effect on the rivalries as well. We already see this with the Cavalry FC – Forge FC rivalry, which is largely fueled by both teams’ results in the first CPL season. As teams will start to dominate the league or even just single head-to-heads, emotions will start to flare and rivalries are bound to be formed.

I’ll make sure to revisit this data in a while, to see what kind of shifts have taken place. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment below or contact me on Twitter.


I want to thank all the respondents who took time to complete the survey: your input is very valuable and made this analysis worthwhile and fun.

An additional thank you to all the people who shared my survey on social media and helped grow the sample to almost 300. I will not claim that this research was 100% scientifically sound, but I do believe the findings are more interesting coming from such a large sample size.

Lastly I want to thank the team behind Know Rivalry and the CPL. From both I have received positive messages and help with spreading my survey around. This research is not in any way affiliated with them, but without them it would obviously not have been possible.


Featured photo © Mike Sturk/CPL

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