In this three-part series, Red Bulls correspondent Frank Giase will examine the three regular-season games against expansion club New York City FC. We’ll take a look at the mindset of the team leading up to each match, how the results impacted the fan base, and how the Red Bulls’ success in these games solidified their status as the top team in the Tri-State Area.
The buildup to the first New York area derby began the week leading up to the match, but in reality you could say the anticipation of the game had been building since New York City FC was announced as a Major League Soccer expansion team two years prior.
The only true MLS battle within a city had been in Los Angeles, where the Galaxy and Chivas USA collided in their SuperClasico from 2005-14 before Chivas USA was dissolved. But despite some early success, Chivas USA was mostly a sub-.500 team and the series was considerably one-sided. Chivas USA had won just four of the 34 meetings.
In building their club, NYCFC decided to go the route of the early MetroStars. They would sign big-name players with the hope of creating a buzz and generating ticket sales, they would play in the new Yankee Stadium, and they would have the mindset of the team’s majority owner, Manchester City, which was ‘to win, you must spend’.
That was fine with the Red Bulls, who had made those mistakes in years past but was moving into the 2015 season with a streamlined payroll, a focus on team play and without the superstars of previous seasons. The differences between the clubs couldn’t have been more obvious.
The first-ever game was set for May 10 – Mother’s Day – at Red Bull Arena, a Sunday night treat on national television. And both sides, along with their fan bases, couldn’t wait.
“When the schedule came out this is the first game I looked at,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch admitted. “I’m glad it’s in our stadium. I think we can set the tone right way in Red Bull Arena and make sure to put our stamp on this for years to come.”
The Metropolitan area became divided between Red Bulls red and NYCFC blue. Social media shots between fan groups were fired back and forth and embarrassing memes began to pop up. The fans seemed into it, but what about the players?
“Rivalries have to happen on the field, they have to happen in big games, games that matter, games that are won and lost,” Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “This could be the start of something historic and it’s exciting because it’s the first game and obviously you want those bragging rights for the next couple of months before you meet them again.”
Bradley Wright-Phillips, who had been in derbies like this during his time in England, had been looking forward to the game all season.
“On a derby game day like Sunday, it just comes out naturally,” he said. “Both teams, kind of the first 15 minutes, ignore the soccer side of the game and it’s just a fight. I think whoever wins that battle will probably win the game.”
The pressure was clearly on the Red Bulls. As the established team, they were expected to win. A loss to an expansion team, derby or not, in a game fans would remember forever would be tremendously embarrassing.
NYCFC garnered much of the off-season headlines, signing big-name players such as David Villa, Mix Diskerud and Frank Lampard. The club got off to a 1-0-2 start but had gone 0-5-1 since and scored just six goals all season. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls were 3-1-4 and sat third in the Eastern Conference.
Red Bull Arena was sold out, as a crowd of 25,217 cheered in anticipation of a Red Bulls victory. Eventually they got their wish, but it didn’t come easy.
Though Wright-Phillips scored just four minutes into the match, the expected rout never materialized. Defender Matt Miazga was ejected in the 36th minute following a second yellow card and the Red Bulls needed every bit of teamwork and savvy to hold on for a 2-1 victory.
“The test of the will of this team and the mentality and what it takes to be when you’re a man down, I thought we grew so much today,” Marsch said. “That was a character win and I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our team probably more now than ever.”
Wright-Phillips scored again in the 52nd minute, knocking home a Kljestan cross from the left, but NYCFC made a game of it when Patrick Mullins scored with 14 minutes to play.
“The competitive juices get flowing and you go down a man and you see your guys fighting like hell to do everything they can to win that match,” Marsch said. “It was inspiring and I’m proud of them. It was a big night for us. I knew it would be awesome in the stadium tonight and, yes, it did, it exceeded my expectations.”
The Red Bulls had held serve, but the next game would be in Yankee Stadium in a little over seven weeks. The rivalry had officially begun, and it would get more interesting in each of the two games that followed.