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.
Though the Red Bulls won the first two games in the derby, New York City FC had been a bit unlucky but had gotten better each match. With Game 3 approaching, NYCFC finally had its full team in place and felt the Red Bulls were ready to be taken.
The two prior games had distinct story lines. The first game, at Red Bull Arena, saw a red card destroy the rhythm of the match but the Red Bulls held on for the victory. The second game, at Yankee Stadium, saw New York City FC start fast and the Red Bulls rally to win.
Game 3 saw the addition of big-name midfielders to both sides. Frank Lampard made his NYCFC debut the previous game due to injury following his summer signing, while Andrea Pirlo was making just his third appearance for the club.
For the Red Bulls, Shaun Wright-Phillips had made just two appearances off the bench while Gonzalo Veron was signed earlier in the week and would make his debut against NYCFC.
By Aug. 9 the Red Bulls had perfected their high press, so the key to the game was a simple one. Could the 37-year-old Lampard and the 36-year-old Pirlo not only keep up with the pace the Red Bulls like to play, but handle the constant pressure every time they touched the ball?
“What we want to do is try to play at a pace that challenges their whole midfield to keep up with,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “Every game we play we have a standard set of certain things that we employ when we press, certain tactical movements, but we always adjust things for teams that we play against to make sure we’re addressing their strengths and weaknesses. It’s just a different kind of challenge.”
Sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference, NYCFC (6-10-6) was still in the playoff hunt thanks to David Villa, who had 13 goals and five assists without much help. But at least they had a week off, whereas the Red Bulls (9-6-6) would be playing their third game in nine days.
But this was a derby, and Marsch had his full first team on the field. But as the whistle blew, and the 25,219 fans at a sold-out Red Bull Arena got into the match, it quickly became clear one player rose above all others.
The Red Bulls had acquired midfielder Sacha Kljestan in the offseason to be the key piece in attack, but on this night it was his defense that turned the game. Kljestan hounded Pirlo all night, preventing the Italian maestro from working his magic as the Red Bulls swept the three-game derby with a convincing 2-0 victory.
“I was told to make sure when he got the ball he didn't have time to pick his head up and get the ball where he wanted it,” Kljestan said about marking the legendary Pirlo, NYCFC’s playmaker. “Jesse said when he got the ball to attack his right foot and I think we did a very good job with that.
“(Pirlo) has the same emotions on his face at all times, but I could tell he was frustrated. We were a little physical with him and he doesn't like that. He's an amazing player and he has a lot of class and a lot of talent, but I think we made things hard on him tonight.”
It was a complete team performance on the defensive end. The back line of Connor Lade, Matt Miazga, Damien Perrinelle and Kemar Lawrence, as well as midfielders Dax McCarty, Felipe and Kljestan, helped silence the deadly trio of Pirlo, Lampard and Villa.
“That was a big emphasis on how we wanted to play,” Marsch said. “We wanted to make sure neither (Pirlo or Lampard) had an easy day. Credit to, again, Sacha, Dax and Felipe in middle of the field, with heavy legs. I think they took it as a personal challenge to play against great players like that.”
With defense of that caliber, it didn’t take much offense to lock up the game.
In the 21st minute. Kljestan played a ball wide on the left to Lawrence, who looked up and saw Bradley Wright-Phillips cutting into the box. Lawrence sent a low cross in front that skipped under the foot of NYCFC defender Jefferson Mena and allowed Wright-Phillips a clean shot into an empty net for his 10th goal of the season and fourth in three games against NYCFC.
The Red Bulls sealed the game in the 85th minute. Midfielder Mike Grella pushed the ball through Lampard’s legs and cut toward the center of the field. Feeling pressure from Lampard from behind, Grella pushed the ball wide to Felipe, who dribbled into the box on the left. Cut off by NYCFC defender Andoni Iraola, Felipe took a step back, then cut to his right and drove a low shot just inside the near post.
Veron made his debut in the 86th minute and nearly set up a goal. He would eventually become Marsch’s first offensive option off the bench and be a valuable part in the Red Bulls’ run to the Supporters’ Shield.
The victory enabled the Red Bulls to jump back into second place in the Eastern Conference, eight points behind D.C. United with three games in hand, but all anybody wanted to talk about was the team’s performance, the sweep of the season series and the rivalry that keeps getting better with each matchup.
“We have a fearless team,” Marsch said. “That was a personal challenge, I think, for those guys. I think our guys wanted to prove a point and go in there and play against world-class players (and) show they're up for the task. The way we play and how we play and who we are is still going to make us successful.
“I think there is pride involved in the city. I’ll be straight. I think them being in the league has been great for the city of New York and great for the league. I’ve never seen this city so alive with soccer. For actual local teams for people to be passionate about, for them to take sides, for them to attach themselves to the identity of whichever team they want to attach themselves to, it’s been awesome, man.”
For a new derby, especially one between an established team with a two-decade history, and an expansion team trying to make its own mark, the games went pretty much as expected. Both teams came alive in the time leading up to each match and the fans were into it more and more each game.
From the atmosphere in both stadiums for the three games, it may be hard to believe things could get better next season. For the Red Bulls, who came within one game of reaching the MLS Cup final for the second straight season, the quest to overcome that final hurdle will be the main priority in 2016, while NYCFC will be focusing on making the postseason for the first time.
The three derby games in Year 1 belonged to the Red Bulls, who are expected to tinker with the roster to not only remain the best team in the area, but the league as well. NYCFC has already made massive changes, including changing the coaching staff after just one season, and roster changes, with perhaps more big names coming in, could be expected.
But that will only make for a more interesting and exciting derby in 2016, and isn’t that what we all hope for?