Hudson derby may one day be more than a game

They would never admit it publicly, but I bet that the New York Red Bulls want to beat New York City FC in the worst way this Sunday at Red Bull Arena.

It's a rivalry that is defined by the Hudson River which lends it its name.

Much has been made of the fact that New York Red Bulls play in Harrison, New Jersey, and not in the five boroughs of New York City, meaning that their rivalry cannot strictly be called the New York Derby (incidentally the name of a horse race). Hence the reference to 'NJRB' by the Third Rail.

Back in March, New York City midfielder Mix Diskerud said: “Right now, I just have a message for all New Yorkers: New York City FC is your team.

"We have to create that rivalry [with the Red Bulls] and I think they already have something against us. It’s up to us to create that rivalry — and it already is — because we are on the right side of the river.”

And so the Hudson River derby - or the Hudson derby - has emerged this week as the front-runner for the name of the duo's rivalry as the so-called 'NYCSoccerWarz' builds up steam ahead of the weekend's first battle.

Yet regardless of the name of the rivalry, the sheer fact that such emnity exists before a shot has been fired in anger shows that the decision to award New York City FC, for all their teething troubles on and off the pitch, an MLS franchise looks to be justified.

MLS commissioner Don Garber is desperate to make a splash in the United States' biggest media market - the Big Apple - and hopes the two teams can inspire each other to greater heights.

"The league feels very strongly that rivalries drive passion, in sport generally but especially in soccer," Garber said in 2013. "We're going to have a good thing going on: Two teams trying to be the king of the New York region. That's a good thing for soccer.

"It will make everyone work harder. We'll have some challenges as we always do, but we have challenges everyday. This is one we'll turn into an opportunity."

New York Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips is hoping Sunday's historic derby is the start of something that can rival derbies across the globe.

The two sides are at different stages of their development, with Red Bulls third in the Eastern Conference after eight matches and bidding for another top-two finish, while New York City have gone seven matches without a win since accounting for New England Revolution on March 15.

There is "no bad blood" between the two New York teams just yet but Wright-Phillips expects that to change over the years.

"It's obviously a rivalry because we're in the same city but there's no bad blood yet. I'm sure after the first 90 minutes they'll hate us more," the Englishman told reporters.

"On a derby game day like Sunday, it just comes out naturally. Both teams, kind of the first 15 minutes, ignore the soccer side of the game and it's just a fight. I think whoever wins that battle will probably win the game.

"[The rivalry is] needed. I'm so happy they're in this league with us now. Every great league has great rivalries. Man City-Man United, Liverpool-Everton, all the big cities have those kinds of rivalries.

"For New York to have one, it's going to be really good. The old enemy, DC [United] that's a nice one, we actually have a history with them, but I'm sure this one will be big for years to come."

Red Bulls need to win and the roots of that need stretch all the way back to the 1970s, when the New York Cosmos of Pele (right), Beckenbauer, and Chinaglia lit up in the Tri-State area sporting firmament, drawing enormous, celebrity-studded crowds to Giants Stadium before flaming out in 1984 and leaving a 12-year blackout in their wake.

The Red Bulls, born in 1996 as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (a strong contender for most challenging team name in the history of professional sports) struggled early on to escape that Cosmos shadow. They got off to an inauspicious start when, in their home debut, they lost to New England, 1-0, on a late own goal by ex-Juventus defender Nicola Caricola, an episode dubbed “the Curse of Caricola,” which was blamed for the next umpteen years of trophyless existence.

But they banished that curse by winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2013. And they have now lasted five years longer than the original Cosmos did. They are the only pro New York club many soccer fans around here have ever experienced. And they’ll be damned if they’re going to let some upstart expansion team come into their house and snatch a win in the historic first installment of this derby.

As for those upstarts, NYCFC obviously want to win the game, too — and badly. Not only would it be a bold shot across their more established neighbor’s bow, but NYCFC haven’t won in seven matches. They could use three points as much as they could use the bragging rights.

But let’s be honest: The bulk of the pressure in this one falls on the Red Bulls. NYCFC are still in the honeymoon phase with the local fan base. Owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, the expansion club made several splashes in the run-up to their debut season, signing iconic Spanish striker David Villa (right), English legend Frank Lampard, and rising U.S. star Mix Diskerud. They also hired a smart, MLS-savvy coach in Jason Kreis. Then they flooded the marketplace with their subway-token logo, their sky-blue jerseys, and Villa’s smiling mug. Their first season ticket holder was a Hall-of-Fame-bound pitcher and their season ticket sales are already above 16,000.

And considering the Red Bulls’ struggles to deliver trophies in the past two decades, it’s conceivable that some of those NYCFC season ticket buyers are former Red Bulls supporters. (Gasp!) Not me, of course. I’ve supported New York with my money and my (frequently aching) heart since 1996, and I’m sticking with my club. But I’d be lying if I told you the pull toward the Bronx wasn’t there. I told my son, upon whom I’ve inflicted Red Bull fandom since before he had much say in the matter, that I wouldn’t be offended if he jumped ship. He’s sticking with RBNY. So far.

It’s a good choice this year. The Red Bulls, who suffered through a winter of discontent, have taken the stage this spring with aplomb. Shaking off the departures of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, and the controversial firing of head coach Mike Petke, they went unbeaten in their first seven matches and head into Sunday’s game with a 3-1-4 record, good for third place in the East. They boast a team-oriented new guard led by their midfield trio of Sacha Kljestan (right), Felipe, and Dax McCarty.

Meanwhile, NYCFC are 1-5-3 and languishing in 9th place in the East. They have struggled so mightily on the field that their head coach lamented recently, “I didn’t realize it would be this difficult.” Given their recent form, the newcomers look ripe for the taking.

But as with most derbies around the world, you can toss out recent form for this match.

Sunday's clash isn’t just about three points. Or the standings. It’s about choosing loyalties in a city full of options, and strong opinions. In nearly every aspect of life, New York City offers (at least) two sides, and frequently asks which one you’re on. Yankees or Mets? Jets or Giants? Brooklyn or the Bronx? Above 14th Street or below?

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