It’s D.C. United. That’s all you have to say.
“It’s the biggest game of the season for sure,” Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said. “They’re our biggest rival without question. It’s the game that means the most to the fans. We have the most history with them, and obviously we’ve had some really animated games with them in the past.
“We played them in the playoffs, we’ve played them in the regular season, we’ve played them in a lot of big games. It’s going to be no different. It’s going to be important for us to have the right mentality. We’re coming off a loss. We didn’t have our best performance in Chicago. It was unacceptable. We need to make sure we make it right at home in front of our fans and get a win.”
The showdown tonight at Red Bull Arena won’t be for first place as the Red Bulls would have hoped. The surprising loss to the Chicago Fire Wednesday night took care of that, but the Red Bulls (11-7-6) can leap over the Columbus Crew and into second place in the Eastern Conference and move within two points of D.C. United (13-9-5) with a victory.
And they will still have three games in hand on D.C.
“We all around here understand what this game is going to be about, what it’s going to require,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “We’re just preparing for little things to give ourselves reminders on what D.C. is about and what the game plan will be, but with the short turnaround I have no concerns about us being ready to go, physically, mentally, emotionally. Everybody knows how big a game this is, as do they, so it will be a really great matchup and a lot of fun.”
Asked where he stacks up the Red Bulls-D.C. United rivalry in 2015, considering the animosity that has quickly developed with New York City FC, goalkeeper Luis Robles didn’t hesitate.
“First and foremost,” he said. “That 2012 (playoff) game was special because of that snow. That was insane. But D.C.’s going to be special to us because there’s so much history. New York City, there’s still a novelty there because it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s exciting, but D.C.’s historic.
“There’s some new guys that might not have been familiar and inundated with the history, but after the last two games they’re very well familiar with everything that’s going on, and we understand that if the playoffs (began) right now the road to MLS Cup is probably going to go through D.C., so it’s important for us not only to continue to measure ourselves up against them because they’re at the top of the table, but also to gain ground on them as well.”
Like the Red Bulls, D.C. United has a balanced scoring attack. Chris Rolfe leads the team with nine goals (three have been penalty kicks), while Jairo Arietta has five and Fabian Espindola and Perry Kitchen three apiece. Espindola and defender Taylor Kemp lead the team with five assists apiece.
“D.C.’s managed to score goals in a lot of different ways. They’ve gotten a lot of production from a lot of different players,” Marsch said. “They’ve rotated guys, they’ve got a deep roster, they’re all committed to the mentality of how they play, and that more than anything will be important.
"They’ll be little tactical things to think about in this game, but this is 100 percent a mentality game. This is about who’s going to want it more, who wants to establish themself in the rivalry and who wants to set the tone for this last stretch here moving into the playoffs.”
Despite trailing D.C. United in the standings, the Red Bulls have had good success against them this year. The Red Bulls won, 2-0, March 22 in their home opener in the second game of the season, and the two teams tied, 2-2, April 11 in Washington. Tonight will be another hard-fought game, and there will likely be just as much animosity as the first two games.
“Of course. It’s always going to be there,” McCarty said of the animosity between the two teams. “It’s never going to go away. It’s never going to disappear. It doesn’t matter if we play them the first game of the season or the last game of the season. It’s always going to be there. It’s always going to be an important game, especially where we are in the standings.
“We’re behind them. If we win this game and we still have a few games in hand, we like our chances to overtake them. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We know it’s going to be a tough game, it’s going to be a battle. It’s not going to be pretty soccer at times. D.C.’s going to come in with a tough mentality. They’re going to try and be physical with us, try and throw us off our rhythm. That’s what they did in the last game. We’re expecting it and we’re going to be ready for it.”
After playing a disjointed game against the Fire, the Red Bulls are expected to have defenders Damien Perrinelle, who is coming off a two-game suspension for a foul in the NYCFC game Aug. 9, and Kemar Lawrence, recovered from a hamstring injury, back in the lineup.
“First of all, for sure, I have regrets of what happened, but it’s a part of the game and now it’s too late to make a comeback on these things,” Perrinelle said about the incident. “Second, it permits me to be fresh mentally, fresh physically and I’m ready to compete for the last stretch. It’s never easy to see your teammates from the stands because you want to help them, you want to be a part of the party. Now I come back hungry and everything’s good.
“We know D.C. We know the rivalry with them. We are a team that is ready to fight. So far we have one win against them, one tie, now we should have another win.”
With the team going well, Marsch has hesitated in breaking up the starting lineup by inserting recent signings Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron. Wright-Phillips has played 100 minutes over five games and Veron 41 over three. Neither has started a game.
“We’ve had a good way with the group that started, especially the attacking group,” Marsch said. “We’ve been one of the most dangerous teams in the league. We are one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Yeah, I want to integrate Shaun Wright and Gonzalo the right way, but what’s more important is that we continue to establish who we are as a team.
“Every decision that I make is about honoring the group and honoring the team and the progress that we’ve put in place. Gonzalo and Shaun Wright will be big contributors as we move on here and it starts at some point, but right now we’re trying to integrate them in the right way that’s good for the team.”
Still, they are the first two attacking options off the bench, reserve talent like the Red Bulls have never had before, and their time for significant minutes will likely come. Tonight they’ll get their first taste of the New York-D.C. rivalry.
“This rivalry is one of the oldest and biggest in MLS so the games are always the same,” McCarty said. “It’s always going to be a hectic first 15 minutes and then after that the game will settle down and hopefully we’ll have enough quality to beat them.”