Aaron Long, celebrating a goal against Sporting KC: “We’re going to expect it to be a dogfight, for sure.”  (William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

The stakes have been raised and then some for the 23rd edition of the Hudson River Derby on Sunday, and it’s not just for bragging rights.

Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way.

On one side of Red Bull Arena, stand the Red Bulls, who own a commanding 11-6-3 in the series, including a 3-0 quarterfinal triumph over their rivals in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on June 22.

On the other side of the Harrison, N.J. stadium, stand New York City FC, which secured the Philip F. Anschutz Cup trophy as 2021 MLS Cup champions in only its seventh season. The Red Bulls are still vying for the MLS holy grail and the Open Cup crown after 27 seasons.

But there is much more than Hudson River supremacy and New York/New Jersey bragging rights at stake in the 5 p.m. encounter. There are points to be won by teams who are vying for the Eastern Conference lead.

Entering Saturday’s matches, NYCFC (10-4-5, 35 points) sits in second place behind the Philadelphia Union (9-2-9, 36). The third-place Red Bulls are not that far behind (9-5-6, 33).

That alone should increase the intensity of the confrontation.

“It’s a league game. There’s three points at stake,” NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing said on Friday. “It’ll be a really high intense game. But at the same time, we’ve played each other very regularly over the last two seasons. So, we know each other inside out.”

Red Bulls captain and center back Aaron Long had similar thoughts.

“We’re both toward the top of the table,” he said. “The last game in the Open Cup, they got pretty chippy. We’re going to expect it to be a dogfight, for sure. We know they’re a really good team, so they’re going to be up for it and so will we.”

More than chippy. There were three red cards awarded in that match, one for each team deep in second-half stoppage time, and seven yellows – four for the Red Bulls, three for NYCFC. Thirty-nine fouls were whistled – 23 on the Red Bulls and 16 on City.

As in many derby encounters in the past, this one will be a contrast in styles.

City prefers to pass the ball around quickly to move the ball up to its attacking force, which is led by 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos and supplemented by an impressive cast that includes Santiago Rodriguez, Maxi Moralez, who still can perform match at the age of 35, and Heber, who has tallied five goals in a part-time role this season.

“We have the big memory in our brain that they win MLS Cup last season,” Red Bulls head coach Gerard Struber said.  “They have a lot of quality individuals in the first 11 and also in the roster with the outstanding ability to create in tight spaces.”

The Red Bulls like to press their opponents. In the Open Cup encounter, the Red Bulls disrupted NYCFC’s rhythm with a relentless press and strategic fouls. It worked to perfection.

And guess what?

They plan to do it again.

Struber said that his team will “create overloads against key players, give some players absolutely no space, no time to create something. This showed me the last four games against them then we have normally always more fun [than] them. This is the bigger goal on this day that we bring the fun for football on a bad level for New York City FC with our aggression, with high intensity, and yeah, also, with the smart transition models … that they cannot handle. They have problems to defend and in this direction we build a match plan and the setup that we have in the end, success.”

In the last four derby matches over the past two seasons, Red Bulls own a 3-0-1 mark in the derby.

NYCFC players must find ways to keep their collective heads and avoid frustration if referee calls don’t go their way, Cushing said.

“Those moments we have to keep discipline and we have to be professional,” he said. “We rely on experience, our experiences as players but referees’ experiences of managing these games and an understanding that we don’t want to get to the 60th minute fueled with frustration because every time we have a bit of flow in our possession, it gets broken up by almost like a tactical foul or a break in play.

“Of course, it’s not a yellow card file but persistently. We’re trying to get into the moment where we want to get flow and rhythm and we understand that Red Bulls that their whole their whole strategy is to break flow and is to have breaks in play and is to disrupt and is to press the game and turn the ball over and fight for the ball. We really respect them. They’re an incredible team and their style is really defined.”

In another contrast, the Red Bulls have had a week to rest and prepare for the match.

On the other hand, NYCFC had to play a Wednesday match in the heat at FC Dallas. The Cityzens won, 1-0, as interim head coach Nick Cushing rested several key players who didn’t even make the trip – center back Alexander Callens, Moralez and Castellanos.

“I don’t think is ideal is it that one team plays away in Texas on a Wednesday and the other team has a week’s rest,” Cushing said. “But it is what it is. Throughout the year in MLS, there are heavy periods and then there’s periods where you can take rest. It’s unfortunate for us that it falls before the Red Bull game. We rested some players we left some players home. We managed to make some changes in the game. We’re pretty relaxed about it.”

Come kickoff at 5 p.m. Sunday, there just might not be a relaxed individual at Red Bull Arena, given what is at stake.