HANOVER, N.J. – What makes a rivalry? Proximity? History? Hatred?
In truth, it’s probably some combination of the three.
But around the footballing world, rivalries often elude definition; they can’t simply be defined by a certain set of parameters. When it comes to the fiercest derbies from each corner of the globe, the label is often superfluous to what we all see on the pitch or feel in the stands.
Such is the case for the longest standing rivalry in Major League Soccer: New York vs. D.C. Almost 20 years to the date removed from their first-ever league matchup, the Red Bulls will once again venture down south to take on United at RFK Stadium.
“In some ways I love playing D.C. but in some ways I hate it,” head coach Jesse Marsch told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s never easy. RFK is always a tough place to play in general, but certainly with the rivalry that these two clubs have; it means we’re going to get their absolute best. We know they’ll pour their hearts and souls into it which makes for really good games. They can count on the fact that we’ll do the same and we’ll be up for the challenge.”
There since the very beginning, Marsch knows better than most just how fierce these matches can be. A member of United’s title-winning sides in 1996 and 1997, his unique perspective from both sides of the rivalry holds more weight than most.
“Whether it’s Philly, New York City, New England, there are a lot of different rivalries,” he continued. “But for me, D.C. is at the top of the list because of the history of the clubs.
“I remember the first playoff series and the intensity of that. From then on in, there was real energy to what it meant to play against New York and how much they put in to trying to beat us. Now that I’m on this side and it’s 20 years later, you still see all the same qualities. It makes it a lot fun, but it’s really difficult.”
In even more rarefied air stands Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty, who has donned the armband for both D.C. and New York.
Now in his fifth season with the Red Bulls, McCarty has endured the highs and lows of this storied rivalry, and doesn’t see any signs of it slowing down.
“I don’t think it’s changed any,” he said. “There’s a lot of passion between both clubs, especially when rivalry week. I think the animosity is always going to be there. We’ve met in the playoffs the last couple of seasons, sometimes we’ve gotten the better of them, and sometimes they’ve gotten the better of us.”
Regardless of their place in the standings, the battles between United and New York tend to bring out the best in players from both sides, and perhaps no one has benefitted more from the amped up environment than midfielder Lloyd Sam.
He may not have spent any time in the black-and-red like his captain and head coach, but Sam has an interesting tie to the capital club.
Arriving in New York in the summer of 2012, Sam made his MLS debut at RFK Stadium, appearing in a cameo role at the tail end of a 2-2 draw on August 29.
A month later, Sam suffered an injury that would rule him out for the rest of the season, including their infamous playoff series with United that fall. He may not have been on the field for that crushing defeat, but the memory remained ingrained, cementing the rivalry in his mind.
“We still want to beat D.C., that’s for sure,” he told NewYorkRedBulls.com. “Since I’ve been here, that’s always been the main rivalry.”
Since that playoff defeat, the Ghanaian international has absolutely bossed each matchup with their I-95 foes. Starting seven matches against United, Sam has scored five goals against New York’s oldest and fiercest rival.
“My family knows about it,” Sam said with a laugh. “They always say, ‘Oh, you’re playing D.C.!’
“I seem to score against them, I can’t tell you why. I just seem to get chances and I take them, so hopefully I can keep that run going; I’ll definitely be looking to get on the score sheet.”
On Friday night, yet another chapter will be written in this historic rivalry. And while these matches can hardly be scripted, you can count on the same passion that has defined this rivalry for decades.
“When we’re playing them, it’s always going to be dog fight,” McCarty added. “We know they’re at home and they’ll want to win for their fans, so we expect to get their best game.
“It’s heated and I know the fans care about it probably more than any other rivalry in the league. It’s a game we take very seriously.”
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