MLS' New York rivals have each other to thank as East title aspirations loom
It's taken awhile to get here, but we might finally have a New York rivalry in Major League Soccer worthy of the name.
Going into the final weekend of the regular season, we have the tantalizing prospect (if the standings hold up) of a playoff series between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC to determine the Eastern Conference title. The Red Bulls are currently first in the East with 54 points. NYCFC is second, just three points back. Even if one of the two slips up in setting up such a contest, there are very real bragging rights up for grabs.
When the two teams eventually look back and reflect on a season that has seen their fortunes largely intertwined, even the eye-catching results between them will fade in comparison as playoff hopes loom. But, for a few more days at least, those three regular-season matches -- which include 7-0 and 4-1 wins for the Red Bulls and a 2-0 victory for NYCFC -- still have a profound influence on the fates of both New York sides and their playoff trajectories, not to mention the Golden Boot race.
Let's start with the latter. Bradley Wright-Phillips leads the race with 23 goals to his name after his brace against Columbus Crew SC on Sunday put him one ahead of David Villa, who scored a penalty in NYCFC's capitulation in a 3-1 loss to D.C. United. Wright-Phillips has been scoring in bunches since enduring a goal drought to start the season, and few teams have had more trouble with him than NYCFC, who allowed the Englishman to plunder four goals in three games this year.
Meanwhile, although Villa got on the score sheet in NYCFC's first-ever win over the Red Bulls on July 3, he has largely failed to torment when up against his local rivals. After watching Wright-Phillips score two against Columbus, he will have the chance to match that feat against the same opponent this weekend in a season that's been full of local quirks and ironies.
In fact, this campaign has arguably seen MLS' two New York clubs provide each other with their most significant turning points. Take the 7-0 "Red Wedding" at Yankee Stadium in May. For a moment after that game, the nascent Patrick Vieira project looked understandably wobbly. NYCFC managed a draw the next time out against Orlando City SC, but then lost to Real Salt Lake and crashed out of the Open Cup vs. the New York Cosmos in the next game.
But even amid a flurry of poor results, something was stirring in NYCFC's midfield. Jack Harrison was subbed into the middle during the Red Bulls' rout and showed enough spark and fearlessness to earn further minutes and play himself onto the team. By the time his side followed up on its Cup loss against the Cosmos with a victory over the then-high-flying Philadelphia Union, there was a sense that the team was beginning to solidify in every area of the field, particularly midfield. It was looking like a unit more than any of the lopsided incarnations built around expensive and ill-fitting designated players.
When the teams met again on July 3, NYCFC had its revenge. Harrison scored the winning goal in a 2-0 victory, and his side promptly celebrated with a group selfie in the locker room, featuring the club's collective playing, technical and support staff.
Evidently that image stuck in the Red Bulls' craw. In a season marked by sloppy late losses up to that point, Jesse Marsch's team embarked on an unbeaten run that now stretches back to that day in the Bronx. Just three weeks later, the streak would include an emphatic 4-1 win at Red Bull Arena, with another brace for Wright-Phillips and the sight of Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard chasing ghosts in midfield.
Once again, NYCFC had to pick itself up from a chastening derby defeat, which it did in stunning fashion. The team followed the loss to the Red Bulls with one of its more remarkable results of the year. The Colorado Rapids have made a name for themselves with their defense this season, but a week after the Red Bulls game -- and even though NYCFC rushed All-Star players back into the lineup on short notice -- the Rapids were crushed 5-1.
From then on, both sides have continued tenaciously to the end of the season, with results and top strikers matching each other stride for stride. It has meant that we might even have one last sting in the tail from that incredible first game in the Bronx.
If NYCFC win this weekend and the Red Bulls lose in Philadelphia, both sides will have the exact same win-loss-draw record, forcing separation on goal difference. The Red Bulls boast a plus-15 GD, while NYCFC has plus-2. It takes more than one game to shape such a season-long stat, but the 7-0 result made for a 14-goal swing between the two, as compared to the 13 goals that currently separate them.
If that margin wins the Red Bulls the No. 1 seed in the East, it will be a sweet irony for their fans, but it will mean nothing if NYCFC surpasses them in the playoffs. The battle for New York just got ramped up for the national stage.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.