The New York Red Bulls will close out April with a three-game home stand, and their biggest, oldest rival - D.C. United - is up first.
DCU is arriving with cause for confidence: a two-game winning streak has put the team back on track after a slow start to the year. And the most recent win was over NYCFC, so DC is in Harrison to see if it can complete an early-season double over New York’s MLS teams.
Of course, the Red Bulls know this is a big game regardless of current form or relative position in the table. As it happens, DC and RBNY are tied on points in the Eastern Conference heading into this game. As it happens, RBNY has lost its last two games and hasn’t won in its last four. But DC is an opponent that brings out a particular intensity in the Red Bulls, with or without of any broader context.
Academy grad Connor Lade is one of the longest-tenured players in the current squad and RBNY’s longest-serving homegrown signing. He has grown up with the DC rivalry as a significant recurring event in his professional life. As he told reporters this week, DC United is an opponent the players have little trouble getting up for:
“A great rival to play against, I feel like the games are always very exciting, it really gets your blood pumping in the middle of these matches,” said Lade, “We’re very familiar with the players they have - you know, playing against them multiple times and playing with some of the guys. We’re really excited going into this. We have a lot of great memories of this match-up, and the playoffs.”
Indeed, one of those memories has been a recent topic of conversation within the squad: “We were talking the other day about Brandon Barklage retiring - and I think that’s one of the games that really sticks out: his brace against them. We have tons of great memories and also some tough memories against them, so it makes for a great series.”
Barklage is one of a select group - including Fabian Espindola, Dax McCarty, and Mike Petke - to have played for both teams in this rivalry. And his two-goal game in 2012 for RBNY against his former employer, DCU, is one of the more recent landmark moments in the series.
RBNY has had much the better of the rivalry in recent years. In 2014, Thierry Henry and Peguy Luyindula combined to finally lay DC’s playoff hex over the Red Bulls to rest.
But let’s get back to the present. The Red Bulls know they need to be better all over the field than they have been recently, but especially when in sight of goal.
“We have to be sharper in the final third. We get ourselves in good positions for that final ball and at the end of the day we’re just not good enough. We had a good transition this week and we’re really looking forward to being at home, in front of the home fans, and hopefully be able to put some chances in,” said Derrick Etienne, another homegrown RBNY Academy product.
Despite being the more successful half of the rivalry overall for the past four seasons, the Red Bulls still feel the sting when results don’t go their way against DC. Last year, three games against DCU yielded just two points. Etienne said RBNY had not forgotten last season’s frustrations with DC, which are now layered on to the more recent issues raised by the opening few games of 2017: “Against a rival like DC, we definitely want to go and rectify the mistakes at the beginning of the season - and the fact that we dropped points against them last year, that’s still fresh in our minds,” he told reporters after Red Bulls training earlier this week.
There’s a little more to RBNY playing DC than just the general weight of the history between the teams. MLS’ original United is rarely without difference-makers in its lineup. This year is no different from most, as the Red Bulls’ head coach is well aware:
“They have some dangerous players, we know that: Lloyd[Sam], [Luciano] Acosta, [Patrick] Nyarko are dangerous, but when we play against DC we should know what this is all about. If you are not up for a fight then you will definitely lose,” said Jesse Marsch, “That’s the message more than anything. There’s going to be some tactical things and some soccer things - we have to be up for a physical challenge as they will be ready to scrap. I give Benny [DCU head coach, Ben Olsen] a lot of credit as he gets his side to fight every single match.”
The Red Bulls will once again be facing former player Lloyd Sam, who wil be making just his second visit to Red Bull Arena as part of the opposition. To be truthful, it still hurts to see him in the opposing team’s colors, especially those of DCU. But he and his former teammates have moved on. There are three points on the line and old friendships (such as Sam’s with Bradley Wright-Phillips) will be have to set aside for the game.
It’s time to Hate DC once again at Red Bull Arena. As with almost every episode of this match-up, it should be a glorious occasion on Saturday, April 15.