By Peter Schwartz
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The Red Bulls and NYCFC began their rivalry in 2015 when the team in blue joined Major League Soccer as the league’s second local entry. It’s been a one-sided rivalry so far, with the Red Bulls taking five out of the six regular-season matches, but the New York Derby has been quite the war of words both on the field and among the clubs’ supporters. The teams and the fans clearly don’t like each other, and it would be amazing to see what would happen should they ever meet in the playoffs.
While we wait for that historic first postseason battle, the rivalry between the Red Bulls and NYCFC takes a new twist when the two clubs meet in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup tournament Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena.
It’s not the MLS Cup playoffs, but the battle for the oldest trophy in U.S. Soccer should result in a memorable new chapter in what could be the fastest growing sports rivalry in the New York/New Jersey area.
“I can tell you that when we play each other, the atmosphere is fantastic,” Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella told WFAN.com during a phone interview Thursday. “It’s electric, and in terms of how exciting our matchup is and how into it the fans are, I think it’s right up there as probably the best (rivalry) in New York, in my opinion.”
In recent years, the U.S. Open Cup has been the backdrop for some memorable local clashes.
The second-division New York Cosmos knocked off the Red Bulls 3-0 in a 2014 fourth-round match while also beating NYCFC in the fourth round in both 2015 and 2016. The Red Bulls beat the Cosmos 4-1 in a 2015 round-of-16 contest at Red Bull Arena, but this will be the first time the area’s two MLS squads will square off in the tournament.
Since its inception in 1996, the MetroStars/Red Bulls franchise has never won the U.S. Open Cup and the Red Bulls would like nothing better than to get just a little closer this year at the expense of their cross-river rivals.
“We’ve set out to win the (U.S.) Open Cup every single year that we play,” said Grella, a Glen Cove, Long Island, native. “The fact that we haven’t come to the final or got that close has been disappointing, so we’ll take it seriously for that reason.”
The Red Bulls will be well rested for Wednesday night against NYCFC, as they will be off this weekend from MLS regular-season action. After getting a couple of days to recharge their batteries, the Red Bulls returned to practice Thursday, as they hope to get things going following a 6-7-2 start to the regular season.
“It was nice to get away for a couple of days and spend some time with family, but it’s always equally just as nice to hit the reset button with the guys, not see them for a couple of days and come back,” Grella said. “(Thursday), the energy was amazing.”
With 20 points, the sixth-place Red Bulls trail third-place NYCFC by four points with a regular-season contest looming on June 24 at Red Bull Arena. RBNY has experienced plenty of peaks and valleys this season, but there’s nothing like a rivalry to get the juices flowing and to get on a run like they did last year after a slow start.
Despite their struggles, the Red Bulls are confident that they have what it takes to compete for a championship this season.
“We had a few personnel changes,” Grella said. “I can tell you that the atmosphere around the place with the break and everything else has helped us a lot. We do believe that we have enough in our group to accomplish something this year. It’s very important that we get ourselves in the playoffs and peak at the right time.”
Even though it’s not a regular-season match, Wednesday’s 8 p.m. kickoff with NYCFC could turn out to be the start of something big for the Red Bulls should they go all out to win.
In the past, it’s been hard to tell just how seriously MLS teams take these U.S. Open Cup games, as they generally don’t play some starters the whole 90 minutes while also utilizing younger players to get a look at them. But given the rivalry and the expected large crowd that will feature plenty of red and blue in the stadium, it sure sounds like the Red Bulls are all business.
“It’s great that this game is at home, and I’m sure it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Grella said. “Because it’s an Open Cup game, we take it just as seriously, and we’re all looking forward to the game. They’re a very good team. They’re going to pose a lot of difficult situations for us, and they’re a difficult opponent for us.”
Last season, it sure looked like the Red Bulls and NYCFC were headed toward a massive showdown in the Eastern Conference final after they finished first and second in the Eastern Conference standings. But soccer fans in New York and New Jersey were denied that dream matchup when both teams were knocked off in the conference semifinals.
That playoff matchup could still very well happen in the not-too-distant future, but on Wednesday night, the local rivals will meet with some other things on the line, including bragging rights and the chance to advance in the U.S. Open Cup.
It’s also an appetizer for the three big MLS regular-season matches to come and an opportunity for the Red Bulls to get out of neutral and get their season turned around.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @MikeGrella10 and @NewYorkRedBulls.