By Michael Lewis
When the Red Bulls and New York City FC take to the Red Bull Arena pitch Wednesday night, this version of the Hudson River Derby will be about both teams’ depth and most importantly who won’t be there.
With the game right smack in the middle of World Cup preparations and warm-up matches and WOTH even the U.S. national team playing a couple of friendlies, both rivals will be far from at optimum strength for the 7:30 p.m. ET confrontation.
The Red Bulls will be missing starters — center back Tim Parker and defensive midfielder Tyler Adams, who are with the U.S. squad for its international friendly at France Saturday, midfielder Kaku, who is with the Paraguay national team, and regular right back Michael Murillo, who is prepping for Russia with the Panama national team. Defender Fidel Escobar also with Russia for the World Cup.
Likewise for NYCFC’s two Costa Rican internationals Rodney Wallace, a forward, and Ronald Matarrita, a defender, who are getting ready for their first World Cup. Add an injury to defensive midfielder Raul Herrera, and City isn’t entering the game at full strength.
So, it will be the charge of the head coaches — the Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch and NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira — to make the best of their depth in their Starting XI and their bench.
Filling out the lineups
Let’s get one vital Open Cup rule out of the way: teams are allowed to dress only five foreign players.
That could be problematic for the visitors, who usually play nine and even 10 foreign-born players in MLS matches. So, Vieira has 13 players who are American citizens or who have a green card from which to choose. And three of those players are goalkeepers.
For the Red Bulls, it should be less of a problem, given their philosophy of developing Homegrown Players and using American players.
Some basic facts
NYCFC (8-3-3, 27 points) enters in second place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the leaders, Atlanta United FC (9-3-2, 29). City is coming a solid 3-0 home win over Orlando City SC. The team is 6-0-0 at home and 2-3-3 on the road and has a goal differnetial of plus 12 (30 for, 18 against).
The Red Bulls (7-4-1, 22) are in fourth place, having played two less games. They’re 4-1-1 at home and 3-3-0 on the road. They had their five-game unbeaten streak snapped by the New England Revolution Saturday, dropping a 2-1 decision after losing a 1-0 lead. Their goal differential is plus 13 (27 for, 14 against). And oh yes, the Red Bulls have two games in hand on NYCFC. The Red Bulls lead the all-time series, 7-3-1, across all competitions, and enjoyed a huge advantage (5-1-1) at RBA.
Let’s look at the main men up front.
For the Red Bulls, there’s Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has scored something like a billion goals against NYCFC. Not really, but the way BWP has been finding the net against his rivals as though it is part of the competition’s rules (11 goals in as many derby matches). However, you have to wonder how well rested he will be because he was forced to play the full 90 minutes and stoppage time in the 2-1 defeat at New England. With three games over eight days, you have to wonder if Marsch will use the Englishman off the bench at RBA.
For NYCFC, there’s David Villa, who did not enter the team’s 3-0 win over Orlando City SC until the 65th minute, taking over for Jo Inge Berget. While he did not score, the Spanish international certainly gave a spark to the host side. And by logging only 25 minutes, Villa certainly could be ready to start. However, since these cup matches can go 120 minutes, the gut feeling here is that Vieira will use his captain as a halftime or second-half sub. Remember, there’s a big league game against Atlanta coming up Saturday.
During the Red Bulls’ 2017 Open Cup run to the final, goalkeeper Ryan Meara started all five matches, recording two shutouts and allowing five goals. Phillips, who had not scored in Open Cup before last year, finished tied atop of the tournament’s leaderboard with four goals. BWP paced the attack to the final, tallying scored three of the team’s four goals, two of which were the game-winners, in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
NYCFC has never won an Open Cup match. City has been eliminated in its three consecutive attempts, getting bounced by the Cosmos via a penalty kicks after 120 minutes in 2015 (that’s considered a draw, believe it or not), and then by a 1-0 result on a Danny Szetela header in the waning minutes during a home game at Fordham University in 2016. Then there was last year’s 1-0 loss at the Red Bulls as Daniel Royer scored.
Looking ahead to this weekend
It’s a big week for both teams.
NYCFC welcomes Atlanta Saturday afternoon as a win would give New York the conference lead. The Red Bulls play at third-place Columbus Crew SC (7-3-5, 26).
Translated, while both coaches want to win Wednesday’s encounter, they have to balance things out with league matches only three days away in a week in which the sides play thrice in eight days.
Looking way ahead
If the Red Bulls prevail, they will have the option of hosting gmaes in the next several rounds because they play their games at RBA.
For NYCFC that could be a problem if the team moves on, since it is the second tenant at Yankee Stadium behind the Yankees. So, the baseball schedule takes precedence every time.
So, let’s say NYCFC wins. The next round is set for June 20, but the Yankees are playing the Seattle Mariners at the stadium that day.
OK, let’s say City keeps on winning.
For the July 18 quarterfinals, there is an open date at the stadium due to the baseball all-star break. But, there is a catch. The Yankees are scheduled to host the Mets in the Subway Series two days later on July 20. There’s no way they would have a soccer game there two days before that series. So, that’s a no go.
And the semifinals are schedule for Aug. 8, which is the final day of a roadtrip before the Yankees return home to host the Texas Rangers the next day.
The Open Cup final is scheduled for Sept. 26 as the Yankees are playing at Tampa Bay. By then, I am not convinced U.S. Soccer schedule the competition’s championship game in a baseball stadium, not with so many soccer stadiums to feature the sport.
The ultimate derby game
While Hudson River Derbies during the regular season are great, nothing would be finer than to have the teams meet in the postseason. There are three possibilities: in the Eastern Conference knockout game (as in third place vs. sixth place or fourth place vs. fifth), the conference semifinals or for a chance to play in MLS Cup if they wind up tangling in the conference final.
While there will be three regular-season meetings between the teams, there is no tomorrow in the Open Cup. You lose, you’re out. In the other matches, at least you have other games to play and bounce back and rediscover your rhythm.
So while these games are fun in so many ways, the derby won’t reach a true fever pitch until there is some postseason glory on the line.