By Michael Lewis
At this juncture of the season, the Hudson River Derby just might take a bit of a backseat to the playoffs’ hopes and fortunes of New York City FC and the Red Bulls.
As Major League Soccer enters the stretch drive for the postseason, both teams need points from Friday’s 7 p.m. match at Red Bull Arena.
NYCFC (14-7-4, 46 points) would like to further secure second place and keep pace with the Eastern Conference leading Toronto FC (15-3-8, 53), which extended its lead to seven points behind a 3-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night.
The fifth-place Red Bulls (12-10-2, 38), who are longshot to catch NYCFC with nine games remaining in the regular season, would love to create some daylight between them and the rest of the pack vying for a playoff. For example, seventh-place Atlanta United (10-8-5, 35), has at least game in hand over the rest of the conference.
“The teams who make less mistakes will have a good chance of winning that,” NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira said. “Of course, I look forward to the game because every time it has been tactically, physically, tough and really demanding.”
Still, an NYCFC win would give them a sweep of the MLS regular-season series, 3-0, a feat the Red Bulls accomplished during the former’s expansion season in 2015.
“We see every game the same way,” NYCFC forward Jack Harrison said. “Against the Red Bulls it would be really good. But at the end of the day, it’s just another game. We’ll be happy to get a win, but we take every game the same. It doesn’t really change much. Obviously, it’s a big game. We’re going to be up for it. We want to win every game. That’s our mentality.”
The same can be said for the Red Bulls, who want to make sure City doesn’t sweep them in the regular-season series. The Jersey side did win the Open Cup encounter between the two teams in June 1-0.
“That’s been on my mind,” Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips said about the 2015 sweep. “When we did that to them, it felt good. Our fans and supporters enjoyed [it]. … I don’t want to be on the other end of that. So I definitely want to take that onto the field.
“There’s a lot of intensity on the field. The two results in the league have made it more meaningful to us. We don’t want to get swept, so i think we’ll be up for this and hopefully if the fans will come out in numbers, they can help us.”
Given that City already has won the season series and on the verge of a sweep will make the host team much more determined, Vieira said.
“They will be more motivated than ever because they are not used to losing against us,” he said. “For them, that is something new. I’m sure they will be more concentrated, more determined to win that game than ever. We’ll have to be prepared. We’ll have to ready. we will have to respond to the physical challenge, the tactical challenge, and to the technical challenge. It’s going to be a difficult game. We’re going to have to make it difficult for them.”
Both teams enter the match in fine form.
Coming off a 2-0 defeat at the Portland Timbers, the Red Bulls have won eight of their last 10 games in all competitions, including victories in the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup.
NYCFC is riding a three-game winning streak, which includes comeback triumphs in two of its last three matches. One of those come-from-behind victories was a stirring 3-2 win over the Red Bulls Aug. 6.
Both teams also enter the game without their optimum lineups.
City is without injured defenders Maxime Chanot and Ronald Matarrita and midfielder Yangel Herrera, serving a yellow-card ban.
For the Red Bulls, midfielder Daniel Royer is out with an injury, while center back Aurelien Collin won’t start due to plantar fasciitis, although he could be on the bench.
While soccer is a team game, the spotlight will be on both strikers, who put on one of the most memorable strikers’ performances in MLS history in their last confrontation. David Villa’s hat-trick gave NYCFC a leg up over the Red Bulls, who had two goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips in a 3-2 result.
Asked how the Red Bulls could slow down the Spanish international, captain Sacha Kljestan said the team must look back on how the team defended him in the Open Cup encounter.
“The center backs did a really good job of being really tight on him,” he said. “Every time he touched the ball he had somebody close to him. I just think we made a few mistakes that hurt us in that 3-2 game that he gets the hat-trick. Limiting mistakes and also limiting the time where he has time and space on the ball. Hopefully, he’s got somebody feeling him all game long.”
Villa leads the league with 19 goals, while BWP hopes for another 20-goal season with 14 in his back pocket.
After training Wednesday, BWP bristled at the suggestion that he had a rivalry with Villa.
“There’s no personal rivalry,” he said. “I don’t know how to answer that question. I feel I talk about Villa more than my children. I want to win the game. I don’t care how many goals he scores, how many goals I score. I just want to win the game.”