Act III: Hudson River Derby

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

Red Bulls logoIt may only be a toddler of a rivalry, a scant 3 years old, but the third and final Hudson River Derby of the 2017 Major League Soccer season between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC on Friday night (ESPN and ESPN Deportes begin coverage at 7 p.m. Eastern) has quickly evolved into a mud-wrestling (and mud-slinging) series that could quickly join the list of contentious local rivalries.

To be sure, it will not soon be compared to the long-standing Mets-Yankees rivalry, which probably trumps all in the New York metropolitan area. Jets-Giants? Knicks-Nets? Rangers-Islanders/Devils?

What could possibly separate the soccer duopoly in the area is that the other sports — baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey — all have limited appeal outside the United States. But soccer derbies are part of the lifeblood of the game around the world.

Now comes the third and final regular-season meeting of 2017 between the Red Bulls (12-10-2, 38 points) and NYCFC (14-7-4, 46). In a MLS series once dominated by the team that calls Harrison, N.J., home (that’s another bone of contention for some fans), NYCFC has fought to turn the tables this season with consecutive wins in the league (despite a loss to the Red Bulls on June 14 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup).

The prospect of a sweep “has been on my mind,” Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips said. “When we done it to them if felt good, it was something our fans and supporters enjoyed. I don’t want to be on the other end of that.”

When the local series began when NYCFC joined the league in 2015, the more established Red Bulls won the first four meetings between the teams, capped off with an emphatic 7-0 victory at Yankee Stadium on May 21 last year. Since then, however, Coach Patrick Vieira has built a stronger roster that has won three of the last four league games, including a pulsating 3-2 win at Yankee Stadium earlier in August.

In that game, NYCFC’s 2016 MLS MVP David Villa scored all three goals in a virtuoso performance that the Red Bulls know they cannot allow him to duplicate.

“If you look back to the Open Cup game where we won, I think our center backs did a good job being really tight on him,” Sacha Kljestan said. “And I think we made a few mistakes in that 3-2 game, where he gets the hat trick. So limiting mistakes, and where he has time and space on the ball are key. Hopefully he has someone feeling him all game long.”

Villa has now scored four goals over the course of the rivalry, while Wright-Phillips has 10.

Vieira said earlier this week that Toronto FC, the first-place team in the Eastern Conference that has opened a seven-point lead after a victory Wednesday night, is the odds-on favorite to win the Supporters’ Shield as the No. 1 team over all in the regular season. Still his club is far from out of it and Vieria’s words might only be used to motivate his club. NYC has lost only twice in its last 12 league games.

In many ways, the competition on the field has grown into the space that has always been occupied to the supporters of both teams, who have added spice to the growing, contentious rivalry.

On the red side of the river, Red Bulls fans rejoiced in their team’s early dominance of the rivalry on the field and made sport of NYCFC’s lack of a soccer stadium, and even the lack of plans for a soccer stadium. That certainly came into play this week when NYCFC was forced to move its match against Houston on Sept. 23 from Yankee Stadium to Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, Conn., because of a conflict with a Yankees’ makeup game.

“It hard, but I also understand that when you don’t own your own stadium it makes a difference,” Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch said. “You have to do what they have to do. It’s better [playing in Connecticut] than going on road to Houston. It’s just nice for use to have Red Bull Arena. What a great place to play, even for Open Cup and other games. Just to have a place like that to play, we’re lucky, very lucky.”

On the blue side of the river, the Red Bulls’ use of “New York” in the team’s name, despite playing in Harrison, N.J., has been a source of scorn. NYCFC, in its communication, never refers to the “New York Red Bulls,” consciously omitting the name of the city.

So up and back we go. What is certain is that the cross-river derby is growing, becoming more heated and more interesting. There is certainly nothing wrong with that.