First New York derby in MLS reveals Red Bulls-NYCFC rivalry is real
Editor's Note: This feature on N.Y. derby originally ran back in May.
I had some version of the same small interaction over and over again on Sunday night. I'd find myself in conversation with another member of the press and one of us would raise an eyebrow, gesture toward a packed Red Bull Arena and a lively game, saying quizzically, "This feels ... real, doesn't it?"
In the two years since New York City FC was announced as a project, it has sometimes seemed easy to forget that #NYCSoccerWarz is more than a hashtag designed to give a collective identity to some casual local trolling. It actually refers to a real dynamic based around local games of soccer and the steadily accumulating history they provide.
Yet there we were some 25,000 fans and 260 accredited media -- the latter overflowing to the roof of the main stand -- watching two New York sides turn what had come to seem like an abstract and somewhat mythical conceit into the stirrings of a legitimate rivalry in front of us. And yes, it felt real.
It's certainly easier and more palatable as an engaged neutral to witness a test of Jason Kreis' NYCFC possession game vs. Jesse Marsch's New York Red Bulls pressing game than it is to try to choose which of the City Football Group or Red Bull represents the most sympathetic project. My personal theory is that there was something of a democratizing moment either before or during this game as the fans took possession of this rivalry. While its origins may have been sculpted at a corporate level, the history and folklore will be determined in the long term by the affections of those fans.
The Red Bull fans taunted their rivals with a banner reading "The Big Apple, red to the core since day one," before applying the final insult with a multistory tifo depicting Dopey the dwarf in City blue, labelled "Man City Lite" and bearing the legend, "20 years late and a stadium short." It was even possible to feel some relief among seasoned New York soccer watchers, who knew full well that you can lead a fan base to opposition but you can't make them hate. There was always the possibility that NYCFC could show up at Red Bull Arena and be met with studied indifference.
Thankfully for MLS execs, TV producers, media and plain neutrals everywhere, the gauntlet was picked up by the incumbent team and their fans. The NYCFC fans also turned up in numbers to support their team and seemed to enjoy chanting into the echoing roof of Red Bull Arena, regardless of what their team did on the field.
If there was a disappointment on the night, it was what the blue team did on the field; their key men just did not show up with the same intensity as the hosts. In particular, there was a clear winner in the Sacha Kljestan vs. Mix Diskerud midfield battle that was previewed in a pair of interviews with both players last week, and which played out under the eyes of U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann. Kljestan even alluded to those interviews after the game.
"I love this game so much and the sport has given so much to me, and to play in a huge game like that is very important," he said. "And I read your article with Mix Diskerud and he had a quote and he said, 'Yeah, the rivalry's going to be good and everything, but it's just soccer so it's not too serious,' and I think there's 25,000 fans and 22 players -- 21 players -- that might disagree with him. So this game meant a lot to me personally because I'm proud to play for this team, I'm proud to defend these colors and I'm proud of the way the team fought tonight."
In fairness to Diskerud, his actual quote was slightly different, but you could see where the intense Kljestan had inferred some ambivalence from his possible direct rival for a national team spot.
Diskerud did not speak to media after a match in which he was subbed off after a poor display. His coach didn't even attempt to spin that after the game.
"I thought Mix was just not great tonight," said Kreis. "I thought he was kind of in and around things and not making plays, either in the attacking half or the defensive half. We need to recognize that we're all not going to have great games all the time. We've got guys in the bench that we believe in so we'll make those changes if we need to."
Perhaps there was some additional pointedness in Kreis' comments when asked about the increase in directness that followed with substitute Patrick Mullins coming into the game.
"Patrick has been a guy for me that every time he plays, he gives us everything he has," Kreis said. "That's appreciated. Quite frankly, I think we need more guys that are willing to really give everything. [Mullins] makes intelligent runs, he gets behind the back four, and he's on the end of things."
Kreis also had words of praise for rookie forward Khiry Shelton, whose liveliness and running was a direct contributor to Matt Miazga's two yellow cards, something that NYCFC could not take advantage of. Yet Shelton is also a first-year player and Kreis, as he has done throughout this season, was careful to manage expectations. "You use the word 'expectation,' but if you remember early in the season and before the season started, I wasn't using that word. It's not a word that I like to use."
If we overlook David Villa's slow recovery from injury for a moment, the problem for his side right now is a sense that they too seem to be managing expectations in the way they're playing. They're too timid, even with honorable (but erratic) cameos from Shelton and Mullins on Sunday night.
The Red Bulls, on the other hand, started a pivotal season after the departure of the team-defining Thierry Henry by sacking their popular coach and losing the momentum of a painstakingly nurtured reconnection with a core fan base wary of the Red Bull ownership. Before the season, they looked to have handed the City Football Group an open goal, yet their technical staff have used the possibility of exceeding expectations as the foundation of their best-ever start to a season with 16 points after nine matches.
They're also adapting. As the Red Bulls' early-season momentum gathered attention, there was a discernible shift in how teams began to play them in the last few games, with more anticipation of their pressing style. For last week's feature, Kljestan was asked if the team needed to introduce more variation into their repertoire now that teams were getting to know them.
When we spoke again on Sunday night, I reminded Kljestan of that and asked if the well-drilled counterattacking form the team had taken after going down to 10 men against NYCFC was a testimony to Marsch's preparations.
"He came in at halftime and said, 'Look, we need 10 guys on the field for the entire second half who can dig deep and show that they have character, show that they can fight for one another,' and that's how he was as a player," Kljestan remarked. "He was a guy that the team could rally around because he worked so hard during games. He threw tackles in, he was up and back and up and back, so I think he rallied us ... . Jesse said earlier in the week, 'Be prepared for red cards, be prepared for a lot of goals, be prepared for craziness,' and I think we dealt with that craziness pretty well tonight."
There are two more regular-season games in this series, and if the atmosphere in those matches is comparable to what I experienced on Sunday, there may be more craziness yet to come. For now, this was, finally, real, and that was more than enough.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.