It took less than thirty seconds for a Chris Pontius goal to kick off a pathetic internal pity party.
Another mid-season stall in the summer heat was here. D.C. United would once again embarrass New York and add to their impressive all-time series advantage. In front of a rare sell-out crowd, the Red Bulls would once again fail to capitalize on perfect opportunity to win over some fans. All week, I told the 15 or so new or occasional fans who joined me for the game how the Red Bulls would be ready for their biggest rival and a great game was in store. Now I would be made a liar by a team that couldn’t be bothered to show up. One more promising start giving way to a season of frustration.
Or so I thought.
You can’t blame me for going immediately into “Woe is me!” mode before the first minute ticked away against the hated D.C. Scum. That’s how it’s always gone for the Metros/Red Bulls, it’s how Sunday was supposed to go, it’s how it will always go. Right?
But the 2012 Red Bulls are full of surprises. Sunday’s starting lineup featured Ryan Meara, Connor Lade and of course the brace-scoring-hero, Brandon Barklage. Few would have guessed that trio would get meaningful minutes this season, let alone develop into serious contributors. When a rash of injuries hit the Red Bulls in late Spring they responded by putting together their best run of the season. Dax McCarty, Mehdi Ballouchy and Kenny Cooper have all exceeded expectations by such a measure it seems ridiculous they had their doubters just months ago.
Earlier this year I deemed the team’s gritty 1-0 defeat of New England my favorite game of the year. While that performance from a patchwork Red Bulls still deserves its plaudits, Sunday’s game was the best game ever played at Red Bull Arena. A comeback win with plenty of goals and a nerve racking finale, all in front of the best crowd the Red Bulls have enjoyed in the new stadium so far. It was a genuine packed house, not a Heck half empty sell out. Even better the fans weren’t there to oggle at Becks or watch their beloved European club trot around for a glorified training session. This crowd came to see the the local team in an original MLS rivalry, a fact made apparent by the energy in RBA throughout the 90 minutes.
It was capped off, of course, by the opponent the Red Bulls overcame, D.C. United. But it was more than just beating a rival. Since the arrival of the Philadelphia Union, there has been some debate over the Red Bulls main rival. As an old-school fan, I adamantly argued that D.C. United was the more deserving and despicable rival. However, the two teams provided very little evidence to back up my position in recent meetings. It’s been a few years since the teams played in a game that matched the history of the rivalry.
Meanwhile nearly every game against Philly thus far has been a gem. After the team put in one of their worst ever efforts in the 4-1 drubbing at D.C., even I was ready to concede that the D.C. rivalry had lost its luster.
The 3-2 victory changed all that. The circumstances helped. In the past five years the two teams have often been in completely different form. This year the Red Bulls and United are vying for top spot in the East.
The players involved also added to the intensity. Three players had represented both teams and all three had plenty of motivation against their former side. Barklage solidified his place in the Atlantic Cup annals with his man of the match performance against the team that deemed him surplus to requirements.
The crowd fed off the intensity on the field. Even if the sellout wasn’t due exclusively to the rivalry, every fan in the stadium felt the importance of it by the final whistle. I don’t expect the debate over our biggest rival to go away. After all, the sports fans of Philadelphia are notoriously detestable. But now some of the newer fans have had a taste of what the D.C. rivalry can be instead of hearing about what it once was.
I relish the prospect of these two teams competing all season long with Kansas City for the Eastern Conference crown. I’ve spent most of this season cautiously optimistic. The occasional howler of a result and nearly constant reminders of the fragility of New York’s starting eleven are enough to give me pause. However this season is starting to take on a similar feel to 2010; good performances from unheralded players, results that show the team has heart, and consistency from most of the big names have me feeling positive about the direction of the team.
Maybe beating DC in such fantastic fashion has made me, for the first time in Sucka Free Soccer, overly optimistic. With away trips to Toronto and New England followed by a three game homestand, we’ll find out quickly how good this team is. It’s a huge opportunity and anything less than 11 points would be a disappointment.
Note: Those of you familiar with the song referenced in the title get 10 Cool Guy Points, equivalent to 0.734 Schrute Bucks.