UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Since the league’s inception in 1996, it seems that MLS and its fans always wanted the New York and Los Angeles rivalry to grow into something special. In the league’s inaugural year, these two teams squared off against each other in their first-ever matches, played before nearly 70,000 at the Rose Bowl.
However, due to New York's struggles, the rivalry never truly blossomed, even after they met in the 2001 playoffs.
But over the past few years, the clashes between these two clubs have become special occasions. The scintillating 5-4 win by the Red Bulls at Giants Stadium in 2008 was played before more than 66,000 people, and a 2-2 tie the following year also drew massive interest.
Now comes this year's fixture, held for the first time at the new Red Bull Arena. Saturday night’s match against the league-leading Galaxy might be just another match, just one out of 30 – but everyone knows it has a little more meaning.
“There is definitely a little bit more pressure,” defender Tim Ream told MLSsoccer.com. “Since I started following the league, it seems like everyone wanted LA and New York to take off, be a rivalry. Two big markets, sold-out stadium on Saturday, national TV – yeah, there is pressure but there has been extra pressure on us the last three games.”
The gameplan for New York won’t change much on Saturday, even with one of the elite teams coming to Red Bull Arena. The team will keep the same style that has seen it get points from its last three games – a tight, compact defense that goes against the league’s top scorer in Edson Buddle. The players are confident in the way they’ve held possession and created chances the past three games, and they see Saturday night as the same tempo.
Head coach Hans Backe called the looming fixture “a great game” when he addressed the media Friday morning. “It’s not in a way to make a statement but to see if we can compete with a quality team,” he said.
Ream agreed, adding that the game is a personal test for him, going up against an attack that includes Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan. It's a big challenge, made bigger by the recent signings of DPs Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez. The two marquee players have changed the way opponents view the Red Bulls, and Ream has noticed that teams are more amped than they were earlier in the season.
“We definitely have a target on our backs, you can sense that,” Ream said. “When you have a team that goes out there and gets world-class players, other teams want to show up, they want to perform at a higher level.”
On Thursday, Backe said it was “naïve” to think that a team with the worst record in the league last year would challenge for the MLS Cup this season. Whether that's gamesmanship on his part or setting the expectation bar low, the players seem to believe in their recent run of results.
“At the beginning of the year, I think guys said that they wanted to make the playoffs and improve that way – to get into the playoffs,” Ream said. “But now, we’re playing overall very well and I think we believe and know that we can go very far and maybe challenge for the MLS Cup.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012