How NYCFC-Red Bulls lost its innocence and became a proper derby

For the first time, the Hudson River derby lived up to its name, marking a potential turning point in the battle for New York.

Before watching the latest edition of the Hudson River derby, I tweeted out a wish for the series’ next installment:

I got my wish, and New York, arguably, got its first real derby game, as opposed to rivalry game. The distinction, perhaps, comes from the fact that a rivalry game can be preordained by a marketer, but only a true derby game checks all the boxes that match the hype.

A derby game consistently exists as a state of exception: harder tackles; unusual crowd intensity; irrelevance of current form, as a notionally weaker team raises its game; rapid shifts in momentum, etc.

Previous editions of this series have had flashes of the above, but there was never a game where either team looked like it could have emerged as a winner. In every game before Sunday’s, one side has generally seized the initiative and maintained it. If you wanted a prime example, there’s a 7-0 game you might want to watch again.

But Sunday was a derby game — the kind of proper, end-to-end scrap featuring two fully extended teams worthy of the name. It was the kind of game that this series didn’t know it was missing.

After the ball broke kindly for David Villa to race in on goal and open the scoring, Villa duly gestured to the Red Bulls’ traveling fans to be quiet in their perch high in the stadium. But then, just before halftime, Bradley Wright-Phillips scored a coolly taken equalizer out of nowhere, and the first great momentum shift of the game got underway.

When the teams came out for the second half, the Red Bulls were first to every ball. When BWP got his second with an equally cool finisher’s goal in the 64th minute, the atmosphere in the stadium seemed to deflate, only to reignite with a passion when Villa rampaged forward for his brilliant equalizer eight minutes later.

Of course, there was the moment when Villa completed his first MLS hat trick, after 13 braces, thanks to a perfectly placed penalty the wrong side of Luis Robles. Thanks to Villa, the pendulum swung again.

Villa would be subbed off to a hero’s reception, and a few minutes later, he was hugging Patrick Vieira in wild celebration at the final whistle. An epic game concluded with New York turning Blue.

What grows in the aftermath

For all the unique, state-of-exception nature of derby games, and placing this one squarely within that tradition, this was also the latest chapter in an unfolding story, one whose progress tends to be marked in the cutesy riff of New York being Blue or Red. And right now, it’s Blue in a way that’s a real challenge for the Red team.

NYCFC now has the measure of the Red Bulls on the field for the first time, having already got its first win at Red Bull Arena a few weeks earlier. By comparison, the 2-0 victory at Yankee Stadium last season was a game that stopped the losing rot rather than truly restored parity; in fact, it inadvertently woke up the Red Bulls’ superiority complex. They went unbeaten for the rest of the regular season.

But if the Red Bulls hoped their home loss this year would inspire a similar reaction, and if they were encouraged by the Royer-naissance of winning their subsequent four games, Sunday night was a rude wake-up call. Perhaps for the first time in the Jesse Marsch era, we’re back to some of the trepidation that marked the months when we were anticipating NYCFC’s arrival, and its potential impact on New York’s delicate soccer ecosystem.

A lot of that anxiety was initially deflected by the Red Bulls sweeping Jason Kreis’ NYCFC in its debut season. The 7-0 pounding inflicted on Vieira’s play-the-right-way prototype also maintained the line that the new team might have the conspicuous spending and Five Boroughs’ presence, but the Red Bulls had the footballing credibility.

With NYCFC having won two of this season’s three MLS games (the Red Bulls did win the U.S. Open Cup clash between the two) and having bragging rights on the field, there’s a renewed focus on just what the Red Bulls are doing to compete in every aspect of the local market. Their marketing presence and visibility in the city continues to be negligible; the days of vying with LA for top Designated Player signings are clearly in the past. Their academy program and willingness to blood young players remains strong, for now, though NYCFC, too is beginning to develop its strategy and make local inroads.

Then there are the crowds, or lack of them. Before kickoff on Sunday, a few Red Bulls fans were optimistically taunting their NYCFC counterparts for a “Chris Heck sellout,” given the empty seats in Yankee Stadium. Heck was one of a line of hapless sporting directors at the Red Bulls whose most infamous move was scheduling a midsummer game against Chicago for a Wednesday lunchtime in hope of attracting summer camp crowds. The few who turned up duly wilted in temperatures over 100 degrees at kickoff as Heck surveyed an almost empty stadium. Heck was gone days later.

Anyway, the fans’ taunts don’t really hold up, or help. Red Bull Arena is a great, atmospheric soccer stadium when it’s full, but it’s rarely full. Yankee Stadium is a terrible soccer venue, but NYCFC draws respectable numbers. As it turned out, Sunday night’s crowd filled in as public transportation did its thing.

‘A very big deal’ coming in Harrison

More to the point, either side taunting the other about poor attendances seems like a pretty Pyrrhic exercise. If either project is going to be sustainable, it needs these central showpieces to have life. NYCFC’s lack of a dedicated stadium is a problem, but it can at least hope to defer judgement in that regard. For the Red Bulls, the years since Red Bull Arena opened in 2010 have not seen a significant uptick in fanbase.

But — and this is not insignificant — the Red Bulls and their fans do have history. Not a glorious history on the field, admittedly, but one that goes back to the foundational days of the league. On Sunday, the traveling fans honored longtime fan Glenn Stamp, who died this week, with a moment’s silence, and whatever noise the NYCFC fans are making right now, even the most dedicated among them have not yet put the time in to touch the commitment and history of some of the original Metro fans. That’s not nothing.

It’s also nothing to take for granted. And those same Red Bulls fans can be entitled to wonder again now what it is they’re maintaining a commitment to. The Red Bulls ownership has always been somewhat opaque about its intentions, even at the time it was pouring money into the stadium and players. Now that the moment has gone, and now that the noisy neighbors are in the ascendancy, its coincided with what appears to be a profound ambivalence on ownership’s part when it comes to matching NYCFC stride-for-stride.

At the very least, it’s meant that the final New York clash of the season, on August 25, just became a very big deal. The Red Bulls need a big crowd (a tough ask on a Friday night in Jersey) and a big performance, or the first proper New York derby we’ve seen might just mark a definitive moment in a long Blue ascendancy.

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