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.
D.C. United may have taken a while to recover emotionally from blowing a two-goal lead to the Red Bulls in their second meeting of the season, but they quickly regained their form.
By the time the two rivals would meet again, Aug. 30 at Red Bull Arena, D.C. United had held onto first place in the Eastern Conference for a little over three months. Despite losing their past two games, to New York City FC and the San Jose Earthquakes, D.C. maintained a five-point lead over the third-place Red Bulls, though the Red Bulls had three games in hand.
In the eyes of the Red Bulls (11-7-6, 39 points), this game should have been for first place, but a stunning midweek loss to the Chicago Fire ended that hope. They would have just three days to prepare for the third and final regular-season meeting with D.C. United (13-9-5, 44 points), and with this game set for a Sunday night on national television, both teams knew the nastiness would be amped up even more.
“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.”
With all the hype about New York City FC coming into the league this year, some of the focus on the Red Bulls-D.C. United rivalry may be been pushed to the back burner. But by the end of August it was front and center, and if any of the new players on the team hadn’t gotten that message yet, they soon would.
“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,” goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “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.”
A crowd of 22,645 rocked Red Bull Arena that night, and even they had to be surprised at what they saw. The Red Bulls, taking advantage of a surprisingly lax D.C. United defense, used two goals and an assist from Bradley Wright-Phillips for a convincing 3-0 victory.
D.C. United was never in the match. The Red Bulls recorded 24 shots, including a 15-2 advantage in the first half, and finished with 22 shots from inside the box as they clinched the Atlantic Cup by taking seven of the nine points from the three games.
“We set the tone right from the start,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “I thought we played at a very fast pace and our goal is to always try and make the game fast and overwhelm teams.”
It helped that D.C. United pretty much sat back the entire game and rarely played balls over the top, as they did in their earlier meetings of the season. The result was very little offense and maybe one scoring chance.
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls were pummeling D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who finished with five saves but was given no help by his defense, which allowed three goals from open shots in the box.
The outburst began in the 33rd minute when midfielder Lloyd Sam took a pass from Wright-Phillips in the right side of the box and beat Hamid inside the far post for his fifth career goal against D.C. United.
Wright-Phillips made it 2-0 in the 42nd minute with one of the prettiest goals of the season. Running onto a long ball on the right, midfielder Mike Grella turned and sent a waist-high cross into the box that
Wright-Phillips volleyed into the upper right corner.
“It was a great ball,” Wright-Phillips said about his 12th goal of the season. “I didn’t have to do much. I really just had to make a decent connection.”
The Red Bulls controlled the game in the second half and added a third goal in the 64th minute. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan intercepted a defensive clear on the right and pushed a through ball to Wright-Phillips. D.C. United defenders appeared to be waiting for an offside call, but the flag stayed down and Wright-Phillips drove a shot into the far corner.
“The swagger was high today,” Robles said. “I’m not going to lie, the swagger was high.”
Though the victory only elevated the Red Bulls to second place in the Eastern Conference, it was just a matter of time before their quest to reach the top of the table became a reality. Within three weeks, following a 2-0 victory over the Timbers in Portland, the Red Bulls were there, and they held the top spot the rest of the season while D.C. United slumped to fourth place, just two games over .500.
That set the stage for two more games in the postseason, but despite the Red Bulls taking both games by 1-0 scores, the series was never really in doubt. They had taken the life out of D.C. United in the regular season, and the playoffs extended the domination.
With two playoff series victories in the past two years over D.C. United, the Red Bulls have turned around what had been a one-sided rivalry. Who knows what Year 21 will bring, but this rivalry will continue to thrive as long as Major League Soccer is around.