Red Bulls’ Sacha Kljestan and NYCFC’s Alex Ring battle for the ball in last week’s U.S. Open Cup match. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
NEW YORK — Rivalries and derbies are not born overnight.
It takes years for them to marinate or even ferment.
Since the first ball was kicked 777 days ago on May 10, 2015, the Hudson River Derby has begun to take form and has a history, albeit a short one.
This rivalry has been defined by numbers:
Seven-nil and 6-1 come to mind quite quickly, the former a stunning Red Bulls’ victory at Yankee Stadium last year, the latter signifying the New Jersey club’s utter dominance in the series.
It has been forged by the success and failure of two great strikers:
The Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips has tallied eight times in seven games, while City’s David Villa has found the net but a measly once. Tommy McNamara leads NYCFC with two goals. In fact, BWP has outscored the entire NYCFC team, 8-5 (the Red Bulls have scored 19 goals).
It has been study in contrast in styles — the Red Bulls’ high-pressure midfield game vs. City’s slow, build-up approach from the back
It even has had a touch of spice and controversy when NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira complained about his Red Bulls counterpart, Jesse Marsch’s attempt at trying to after the 1998 World Cup winner was ejected from last year’s match at Red Bull Arena.
It also has been a contrast of opposite philosophies on how to build a team.
After years of using high-profile players, the Red Bulls have decided to build from within.
Being a third-year expansion team, City has had to create its team from scratch in 2015 and has decided to sign former World Cup champions such as David Villa and Andrea Pirlo as its Designated Players.
Although they use New York as their “surname,” the Red Bulls always have played in New Jersey in their 22-year history most recently at Red Bull Arena, considered one of Major League Soccer’s best stadiums, in Harrison.
Upstart NYCFC has stolen the spotlight being in the city. And while it calls iconic Yankee Stadium home, a baseball venue just doesn’t give the beautiful game its proper due.
And of course, the Red Bulls are, well, red, and NYCFC is blue.
Which team will be feeling blue after Game Eight of this series should be known after the final whistle sometime around 3:30 p.m. Saturday (kick is 1:30 p.m.).
Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, who has started six of the seven derby encounters, felt the nascent series gave soccer a much-needed higher profile in the area.
“What New York City has done is they’ve sort of brought the spotlight back and we have to be grateful for that,” he said. “What they’ve done is for even just the soccer profile in the city is enormous. And everything that they have been able to do helps us.
“Of course, the rivalry is in its infancy but as it grows, it could be one of the best rivalries in sports in this country. The first seven games have been very lopsided, but it would be very foolish for anyone to think that it will play that way for a long time. We’ve been very fortunate to be on the winning side so many times. But as this rivalry grows, it’s only going grow because both sides are looking to be better each and every year.”
The Red Bulls enjoy a ridiculous advantage in the series.
“We have been one of the best teams in the league the last two years,” Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan said. “This season we’ve been up and down we really haven’t gotten our consistency going yet. It’s hard to explain. We were good last year. We finished above them in the standings, we finished above them the year before. I don’t know how to explain why we have won six out of seven games. But I think we are a pretty good team. We believe in ourselves, we believe in the way we play. When we go toe-to-toe with a team that maybe plays almost an opposite way of us, it’s a battle of wills, it’s a battle of who’s going to do better. So far we’ve been a little bit better.”
NYCFC, on the other hand, is still smarting from that a 7-0 thrashing by the Red Bulls in their own house at Yankee Stadium last May.
“I always want to get revenge on Red Bulls for my debut and everything,” forward Jack Harrison said. “So that’s the first thing that I think of is the 7-0 debut I had against them last year.”
Which adds some motivation in the young Englishman’s play. “A little bit,” he said. But at the end of the day, it’s a derby and you’ve got to be up for it, regardless what happened last year. It’s going to be intense no matter what.”
For some, the hurt has last more than one game, even if they haven’t been with the club for every derby confrontation.
“I think when you play seven and lose six, it’s painful,” Vieira said. “There’s no doubt about it. This is something I’m not happy about and not satisfied about and we have to start turning it around.”
Asked why he thought the Red Bulls have enjoyed such a distinct advantage over his team, Vieira replied, “They made it really difficult for us. The Red Bulls are a hard-working team that sacrificed themselves. They make it really difficult for us on the way we want to play.”
Vieira said he was encouraged by his team’s performance in the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup last week. City lost, 1-0, but that was after playmaking midfielder Maxi Moralez was forced from the game with a calf injury.
“We had our chances, especially in the first half,” he said. “I believe we were a bit unlucky because we should go to halftime winning at least one- or two-nil and the game would be completely different. … I strongly believe there was a chance for us to win that game. They didn’t create much, but when they had a chance they took it and they scored the goal. That’s why I’m quite confident that we can turn things around against the Red Bulls.”
Assistant coach Chris Armas, who has been running the Red Bulls’ show with Marsch in Poland earning his UEFA Coaching License, felt City shouldn’t change a thing in its playing style in its quest for three points.
“Look, it’s fun that day because we know they have a way and it’s what’s brought them great success in many ways in the short time that Patrick has been there,” he said. “So why would he change everything just because? Even if they decided to bypass the pressure and or some diagonals and whatever they decide to do on the day, it’s still going to come down to knowing their players, what are their tendencies, can we take time and space. I just don’t think they’re going to stray far from what they’re about.”
Vieira? He wasn’t about to change his system.
“We know what to expect,” he said. “We know they are a tough team to play against, especially with the way we want to play but we’ll stick to our principles.
“We’ll try to find a way to stick to our philosophy and try to win the game.”