A FAVOR HOUSE ATLANTIC: PART TWO | Comeback in the capitol

In this three-part series, Red Bulls correspondent Frank Giase will examine the three regular-season games against rival D.C. United. We’ll take a look at the mindset of the team leading up to each match, how the results impacted the standings, and how the success affected the team as a whole moving forward.
 
Through a quirk in the schedule the Red Bulls would be playing D.C. United for the second time in three weeks and for the second time in the first four games of the season, this time on April 11 at RFK Stadium in Washington.
 
Since the 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena on March 22, D.C. United had beaten the Galaxy and Orlando City SC, both by scores of 1-0, and had three 1-0 wins in their first four games. As the leaders in the Eastern Conference with nine points, D.C. United was out to prove that the only negative mark on their early ledger was a slip-up that they intended to quickly rectify.
 
The Red Bulls were coming off a 2-1 victory over the Crew in Columbus, Ohio, and were sitting 2-0-1 with seven points. But just like their first meeting with D.C. United, they had a two-week break before the game. And that drew some worries.
 
“We’ve had a good start because we’ve emphasized that we play like we want to play and we want to try for 90 minutes to maintain the level of speed at which we play and make sure that we continue to put the game on our terms,” coach Jesse Marsch said. “The more we are able to do that the more successful we will be. That’s led to the success.”
 
But the Red Bulls were about to run into a problem they would spend the entire season trying to overcome: slow starts following open weeks in the schedule.
 
When you play with the energy and pace that Marsch demanded, gearing down early in the week and gearing back up for a game on the weekend becomes a regular mental and physical routine. But when there’s an open week, the mind and body can be thrown off and not be on the same page come game time.
 
“I don’t want to say that’s not going to be an issue for us because you never know, but there’s a 100 percent certainty of the mindset going into every game,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We’re going to be the aggressor, the team on the front foot.”
 
The Red Bulls’ midfield dominated the first meeting with D.C. United, but it took a couple of nice saves by goalkeeper Luis Robles and a missed penalty kick by D.C.’s Chris Pontius in second-half stoppage time to ensure the victory. While on paper it looked like a convincing victory, the Red Bulls were cautious coming into the second game, especially so soon.
 
“I think we caught them off-guard a little bit that first game,” McCarty said. “I’m expecting a very competitive game the way it always is against them. … D.C.’s probably going to make some adjustments and have some things that we’re not ready for.”
 
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, in his first season back in MLS after four-plus years in Belgium, was new to the Red Bulls-D.C. United rivalry. And he was pretty blunt about what this second game meant.
 
“This is a huge chance for us to take six points away from them and step on their throats early in the season,” he said.
 
But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was D.C. United that came out on the front foot, and their physical play disrupted the Red Bulls. A foul by D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen on Felipe in the first minute set the tactical tone, and the D.C. midfield did a much better job of handling the Red Bulls pressure, especially midfielder Michael Farfan, who started in place of Nick DeLeon on the right side.
 
The Red Bulls also didn’t have an answer for Kitchen, who scored in the 26th and 66th minutes to give D.C. a 2-0 advantage. The second goal, a beautiful 25-yard shot that beat Robles low to his right, appeared to seal the game, but facing a two-goal deficit for the first time all season brought out a side to the Red Bulls that had yet to be seen.
 
It was their first gut-check moment of the season, and they not only responded, but did so without the help of a superstar player like they did in years past.
 
As the crowd of 16,304 began to roar in anticipation of a D.C. victory, the Red Bulls struck back just two minutes later when Damien Perrinelle headed in a Felipe corner kick. The crowd went totally silent in stoppage time when Lloyd Sam scored off a rebound to salvage a 2-2 tie, which enabled the Red Bulls to match the best start in club history (3-0-1).
 
“We have seen four different kinds of games, and in four different kinds of games we have been up to the task,” Marsch said. “… But yeah, it’s important that early on we get to know each other in a lot of different ways. The way we responded, that lets you know that on the inside there’s something happening here and we keep pushing hard.”
 
It was a mere four games into the season and the Red Bulls had thwarted their biggest rival twice. D.C. United would rebound and be among the leaders of the Eastern Conference for the next couple of months, but the Red Bulls would eventually overtake them and D.C. would fade and barely hold off the New England Revolution and Toronto FC for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
 
The Red Bulls had met the challenge of their early-season task, taking four points from their bitter rival and displaying a brand of soccer that would win back the hearts of a fan base and carry them a long way.
 
“I think it’s important for us to face this sort of adversity this early in the season because it’s going to continue to shape us,” Robles said. “We want to be a team that only plays quality football, that puts teams under a lot of pressure, but also has that sort of spirit that fans can be proud of.”
 
As for the Red Bulls-D.C. United rivalry, they would not play again for another four-and-a-half months. Much would change before they met Aug. 30 for the final time in the regular-season, but the Red Bulls had made their point.
 
The D.C. dominance of years past had taken a hit. The Red Bulls were no longer intimidated by the sight of a black uniform. The tide in the series had turned, but the most convincing moment was yet to come.

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