Sean Davis: “When I think about our rivalry with Atlanta, it’s very authentic, it’s very real.” (Photo courtesy of MLS)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

The Red Bulls vs. New York City FC?

The Red Bulls vs. D.C. United?

Add New York vs. Atlanta United to the mix.

At least one Red Bull, captain and midfielder Sean Davis felt that that rivalry was the genuine, real thing, even if the teams are separated by some 740 miles and several states.

That will be played out again when the teams face each other at the MLS Is Back Tournament Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.

“When I think about our rivalry with Atlanta, it’s very authentic, it’s very real,” Davis said during a media conference call Thursday. “It wasn’t built before a game even started, it’s been all because the games have been so competitive, so demanding. There’s never a dull moment in the rivalry, so I think that there’s a strong foundation there; there’s a clash of styles.”

Davis wasn’t exaggerating. Many of those clashes were difficult affairs for both sides. And remember, Atlanta eliminated the Red Bulls, then the Supporters Shield champions, from the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs. The teams have met six times in the regular season, twice in the playoffs.

What probably rubs salts further into the wound is that Atlanta won the MLS Cup in its second season, while the Red Bulls and their supporters are still waiting for their first league title since the league kicked off in 1996.

“It’s hard to rank the rivalries because I do think we have other awesome match-ups when you think about New York City FC, but I do think Atlanta is up there,” Davis said. “I think it’s a game that both teams really get up for, and both teams, as far as the players go, are really excited and pumped to play against each other. I think it has all the makings to be a great rivalry in this league for a long time, and I can speak on behalf of our guys, that we couldn’t be more excited to start the tournament against a team like Atlanta.”

Of course, the game is much more important than just defeating Atlanta. It’s the Red Bulls’ first in four months and they are out to show they still can play this game at a high level and compete for a playoff berth and perhaps more.

“It’s a perfect start for us, we know how intense this game is going to be, we know them very well,” center back Aaron Long said. “They know us very well, so there’s not going to be any surprises. It’s just going to feel like we’re going to get back into things right away. It’s going to be a fast start to this tournament. I think it’s a good way to set us up on the right foot for the rest of this tournament if we do well.”

Before joining the Red Bulls, Davis and Long toiled for Red Bulls II, playing in front of sparse crowds at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. So, they are accustomed to little crowd noise and hearing what everyone says on the field.

They both said they haven’t talked to their teammates about the sounds or lack thereof, but they know that communication is vital.

“Communication, being able to talk, not only the backline, the midfielders, the forwards, that’s going to be really important,” Davis said. “It’s always important with our style, there’s so many little details we need to stay on top of.”

A packed stadium or not, Long liked the Red Bulls’ chances in the World Cup-style tournament.

“I think we have a great team,” he said. “We have a great roster, we have self-belief coming within, we have healthy guys, and we’re hungry.”