Red Bulls and NYCFC: Play It Again

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By JACK BELL

Red Bulls logoChris Armas will not be in the big chair Saturday afternoon after Red Bulls’ Coach Jesse Marsch returned from Europe in time for Hudson River Derby between the Red Bulls and New York City FC.

But as a lifelong New Yorker, Armas has had a ringside seat for what he considered to be the best and most-heated New York sporting rivalry — on the National Hockey League ice between the Islanders and the Rangers — the biggest rivalry until now.

“I would say the biggest local rivalry when I was growing up was the Islanders, they were a new team then, and the Rangers,” Armas said on Tuesday at a news conference at Major League Soccer headquarters in Manhattan ahead of Saturday’s game. “It wasn’t Mets-Yankees because they didn’t play. Not the Jets and the Giants. As for soccer, the only thing to watch was the Arrows indoors. When I was a kid the Islanders were winning Stanley Cups and there was that good energy — and fights. Those games were always fun. You could see fans were sometimes over the top.”

When it comes to going “over the top,” few would argue that the passion and ardor of soccer fans is unmatched in sports, and this budding, maturing rivalry is no different. For the Red Bulls (7-7-2, 23 points), the local rivalry has been painted red since NYCFC (8-5-3, 27) joined MLS in 2015. The Red Bulls swept the games in 2015 and won two of three in 2016, including a 7-0 thrashing of NYCFC at Yankee Stadium. The Red Bulls are a 3-0-0 at home against NYCFC and have outscored their rival, 8-2, during MLS play.

“More than anything these games are fun,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “Even with the buildup, one thing that sticks out is that we really struggle to sell out games. I’m a little envious when I’m able to see the Northwest teams able to continue to fill those stadiums on a more frequent basis. This game should be full, any time Red Bull Arena in sold out it’s one of coolest places to play. In my opinion it’s one of best places to play when it’s sold out.”

The Red Bulls may have dominated the rivalry so far (including their 1-0 victory in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on June 14), but the teams’ trajectory so far in the 2017 MLS season has been distinctly different. NYCFC has cobbled together an interesting and entertaining roster under second-year Coach Patrick Vieira, and is powered by the league’s 2016 MVP David Villa. While we’ve lately seen less of Andrea Pirlo, Max Moralez has played midfield maestro, until sustaining an injury in the Open Cup that could force him to miss Saturday’s game. Each team has benefited from an injection of youth — for NYCFC there’s Jack Harrison and Yangel Herrera; for the Red Bulls there’s Tyler Adams, Alex Muyl and Aaron Long, to name only a few.

The Blue team has won two straight league games and has lost only once in its last five games. The Red team has only two wins in its last seven games as it struggles for consistency and production up top.

“They have their style and it’s gotten better over the years,” Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan said. “It’s another game, another derby, and we’re playing catchup four points behind them. This is a chance to beat your rival. This is not a normal game. It’s one game that’s as important as the 33 others. You can talk about the drama of 7-0, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all the game to me, but it matters a lot to the fans.

“We’ve known for a long time that these local rivalries mean so much to the fans. We want to give them this one.”

Though the rivalry is hot and getting hotter, there are several connections between the teams that might not be well known:

R.J. Allen, the brother of Red Bulls homegrown player Brandon Allen, plays for New York City FC.

¶ Vieira was a teammate of Ian Wright, father of Bradley and Shaun Wright-Phillips, at Arsenal from 1996 to 1998. Shaun Wright-Phillips and Vieira played briefly together for Manchester City during the 2010-11 season.

¶ Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara spent the 2015 season on loan with NYCFC.

The last word before the match belongs to Robles, one of the team’s most thoughtful players: “I like to think we’ve been the better team, but there’s no advantage going into this game. They are getting better, they seem to have the right pieces, and there have been moments for us where we’ve been in a slump.

“When look at last year there were two games that stick out: first one 7-0 because that experience was phenomenal. The one I like to focus on was the loss [2-0 last July 3]. It allowed us to galvanize, after that we ended quite strong [unbeaten in final 16 games of the regular season].

“I don’t know if an added level of competition comes with rivalry matches. I know the spending tilts toward NYC, the attention to NYC, they have higher-profile players. But I think it plays into our mentality, we feel like we have a chip on our shoulders and it carried overs from 15 to 16 to 17. There are a lot of attractive qualities about NYC. It’s what fuels us because we almost get swept aside. A lot of people like to stomp on us because we haven’t won MLS Cup and we’ve been around a while. Each part fuels our mentality. At the end of the day this is just a fun game to participate in.”