For the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United, the feeling of animosity was instant. By the time both teams had finished their first season in MLS, the duo had met seven times, accelerating a rivalry that has since seeped into the very foundations of both clubs.
“For the U-18 and U-16 teams there was always something, a little extra bite, in those games,” Alex Muyl explains. “It’s something we felt throughout the whole club that this game meant a little bit more. I think I’ve grown up with that, and it means we play with a little bit of animosity.”
Muyl is not alone experiencing the rivalry at a young age, with teammate Sean Davis voicing similar sentiments, “I remember playing those academy games against D.C. United, they were always difficult and demanding,” he says.
A rivalry that began when the two were just youngsters, tracing the origin point is difficult, “I don’t know if it's a proximity thing, or if it’s a case of two cities that are very important cities in the United States,” Muyl says when trying to explain the rivalry. “They’re not that close [geographically]. I went to school in D.C., it’s 4 and a half hours to get there, it’s not the closest place. My years in the academy we were really strong, we always kind of ran over them. I never got to play them in RFK which I always wanted to.”
Former MetroStars goalkeeper Tony Meola has spoken of the instant disdain between the two clubs supporters groups, while John Harkes admitted that United saw the MetroStars as the team they had to finish ahead of in year one.
“We figured New York was going to be the measuring stick for the league that first year,” Harkes said in 2013. “They had Tony [Meola] and Tab Ramos and Peter Vermes, and Roberto Donadoni. From Day one at our camp, we said, 'If we get one thing right as a club, let's be able to beat New York.’"
That sense of the two vying for top spot was also felt at the academy level.
“For me I thought these were the two teams on the East Coast that were the two most developed in my academy days,” Juan Agudelo explains. “Those two teams would always get into little tussles and that’s what makes it a rivalry. They would get into little skirmishes, and I knew it was a rivalry from the first game I watched at Giants Stadium.”
It was during an Atlantic Cup match in 2011 that Agudelo, now with the New England Revolution, tasted arguably his finest moment in a Red Bulls shirt.
“It was a situation where we felt the game was won, and I came on the field with a lot of freedom,” he says. “The coach didn’t really give me much direction and I went out there without anything to lose, which gave me the confidence to pull a move like that off.”
Watching at home that day was Agudelo’s close friend, and soon to be groomsman, Davis. “Juan is one of my great friends from growing up,” he explains. “I was always following him to see if he was playing. To see someone I know [score that goal] it makes it easier to believe that I can follow in his footsteps. It’s great to have Homegrown Players you can look up to, whether it’s Juan Agudelo, or even now with Connor Lade and the success he’s enjoyed.”
A goal that Muyl remembers just as fondly, it has no doubt served as inspiration to many a member of the Red Bulls’ academy.
“It’s a beautiful goal,” Muyl enthuses. “Our coach was always talking about him [Agudelo]. He was always someone I would hear about, and I would try to emulate because he was doing so well. I haven’t scored my first goal yet, but it would be amazing to do it in a game like that.”
Now focused on writing their own story in the Atlantic Cup, Muyl and Davis already know a less than warm welcome will await them on Friday at RFK Stadium.
“I love going to atmospheres where you’re the enemy,” Muyl says. “It just gives you that much more motivation to win. These type of games against D.C., they mean even more [to us and the fans]. We pride ourselves on our aggression, and when you play in a derby you need that kind of mentality.”
A venue that Davis once visited as a spectator while in college, the midfielder is now hoping to take the field as a member of the New York Red Bulls first team, “I think that’s a sign that things have really come full circle for me,” he says. “It would be a really nice sign that things are going well for me, to go from being a spectator at RFK to then playing there.”
And with the team enduring a tough start to the campaign, the duo are also keen to repay the fans that stuck by them. “We have to give a lot of credit to the fans for sticking with us, but we knew they would because we know we’re very lucky to have fans like them in this league,” Davis says. “We have to continue to play well and reward the fans, and what better way to do that than with a win over D.C., which we know won’t be easy, but we know how important it is to them.”
Meanwhile, for those that have experienced an Atlantic Cup match at RFK first hand, the advice to newcomers is simple.
“I would say be patient,” he says. “And the key thing is never lose confidence. A lot of footballers forget about how big confidence is. Maybe if you’re not playing well you lose confidence, but you’ll get that chance.”
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