By Michael Lewis
They’re as different as, well, red and blue.
And different philosophies.
At one end of Red Bull Arena Saturday will be the Red Bulls, a team with 22-plus years of history who like to play a pressure game from the opening whistle. They also usually use a lone striker and like to bring players up through their system as Homegrown Players.
They could have as many as six U.S. citizens in their Starting XI.
At the other end of the pitch will be New York City FC, which prefers to bring the ball up slowly. The team deploys three forwards and has stocked the team with young and up-and-coming South American and European players.
The squad could have as few as two Americans in the starting lineup.
Welcome to the Hudson River Derby 4.0.
The two rivals will square off in the first of three regular-season matches for a 2 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
“We always circle this on the calendar, when we know we have the derby matches,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch told reporters earlier this week. “Here we are, in the fourth installment of the first part of the series, and I think it’s set up to be one of the best ones yet.”
Added Red Bulls center back Aaron Long: “I think obviously they are having a great season and I think we are on a high as well after our win at LA. Very tough game, very tough team, very good attacking group, I feel like this will be similar to LA. They are scoring a lot of goals, it is going to be tough but so are we. I think it is going to be a clash of two titans, in a way, so we will see who comes out on top.”
NYCFC (6-1-2, 20 points), off a 3-1 home win over FC Dallas, will try to keep or extend its Eastern Conference lead over Atlanta United FC.
“I think NYC is a very good team,” Marsch said. “They will challenge a lot of the things that we do. It will be a scrappy game at times, because they are not just focused on with ball as much as they were, as they work hard against the ball, so it is a great combination for them to have and they have been very effective so far this season and it’s a chance for us to see exactly where we are at this point of the season and I feel like our team is in a good way and will be ready for a big game.”
The sixth-place Red Bulls (4-3-0, 12), who survived a 3-2 thriller at the LA Galaxy last Saturday, is still recovering from their elimination from the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
“From outside, I quite like the energy that they have when they are on the field. They lost some important players, I think, but the team is more dynamic than they used to,” NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira was quoted by MLSSoccer.com. “I think on our side is the same as well. We lost some experienced players and we have some young players on our team. Both teams are more energetic than they used to be so it’s going to be an open game. If both teams stick to their philosophy, it can be a really good game of football.”
Counting last year’s game between the sides in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, this will be the 11th meeting between the two rivals.
The Red Bulls lead the all-time series, 6-3-1, although NYCFC won last year’s four match-ups with a 2-1-1 mark.
Slowly, but surely, the derby has become richer and a real, honest-for-goodness rivalry is developing.
“It has gotten bigger,” said Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has scored 10 goals since the derby began in 2015. “I think the way we started and winning all the time it gave them some fire. Now, they are on top of the league right now. They have had two good seasons in a row and it is going to be tougher for us. Since it first started, it is definitely getting better and evening it out more, it is not one sided anymore.”
Long started watching the derby as a spectator. Now he is a participant, so he can give a little context to the series.
“The atmosphere is definitely different, you can tell it is a rivalry game,” he said. “The whole week leading up to it is a little bit exciting, when you get to the stadium it is a different atmosphere for sure. I think everyone is a little bit on edge, but when the whistle blows it is a different feeling.”