On May 21, 2013, MLS announced the 20th team in its history: New York City FC. Nearly 20 years after MLS was supposed to launch with two teams in the New York area, it finally happened.
Last year, those two teams met on the field for the first time. Let's be honest: it wasn't close. The Blues were taking their first, tottering steps in the league; the Red Bulls were storming to their second Supporters' Shield in three years. For as much as we'd have loved to have painted Gotham blue, it was drenched in scarlet with the gore from three defeats.
Because that's the reality: rivalries are forged on the field. The Red Bulls ran riot over the Blues; they outscored New York City 7-2 over three games. They were led by striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored four of those goals. None of those games were remotely close.
In the opener at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, New York City gave up a goal in the opening strokes of the game that left them reeling throughout, to the point that English legend Frank Lampard got nutmegged & left stumbling about by Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella on the way to New York City's surrender of a second goal. That game ended 2-0, with then-manager pointedly calling out his players' lack of effort.
At Yankee Stadium, the Blues were able to briefly match up with the Red Bulls, before collapsing in a heap in the second half on the way to a 3-1 capitulation. And the rubber match in the Hudson River Derby was utterly forgettable, as the Red Bulls strolled to a 2-1 triumph back home in Harrison, New Jersey.
Rivalries are forged on the field, but New York City have yet to show up on it. For this to actually be "the greatest rivalry in MLS", as Alexi Lalas bizarrely stated, New York City need to actually win. They need to deliver a statement, ideally one that ends with Red Bulls players slinking back to New Jersey in shame at their performance.
The Blues have never had a better chance to make this an actual rivalry than today. The team that Patrick Vieira has meticulously crafted is finally beginning to work in harmony with each other. They stand in second place in the East at 18 points; a win today, and they retake sole possession of first place. Are there discordant moments? Definitely. Vieira is not finished with them yet, and they have many games yet to keep.
Meanwhile the Red Bulls are staggering. This is not the ferociously harassing team of last season, not even close. It took them the better part of three games to even score their first goal; their seven losses already are 70% of what games they lost last season. Their offense is suspect, their defense a reject. They desperately miss Damien Perrinelle and Matt Miazga; Dax McCarty is thoroughly ineffective, I suspect because he's playing through injury. Wright-Phillips is not the Golden Boot winner he was two years ago, when Thierry Henry was feeding him balls.
Meanwhile, David Villa leads MLS with eight goals. Tommy McNamara is finally becoming the creative and secondary scoring force that the Blues need. His sublime game-winning goal against the Portland Timbers last Sunday took his streak to four straight games with either a goal or an assist. He's got a goal and three assists over the four-game span in which the Blues have drawn once and won three games – matching their longest unbeaten streak ever.
The question, though, is: wither Lampard? Will he play today? His not-quite spectral presence hangs over the festivities like Banquo's ghost. I don't know. I hope not; whatever Lampard could've brought to New York City, he chose instead to leave behind in places like the Hawthorns and the Stadium of Light in England, in a futile quest for glory. All he's brought, instead, is the special kind of humiliation reserved for players who tarry on the field too long. He's Namath in a Rams jersey, Jordan in a Wizards jersey, Mays in a Mets jersey.
The glory is reserved for Villa; to players like McNamara and Poku, the folk affections. Pirlo, despite his clear struggles at times, gets the appreciation due a senior master of the game. Not Lampard -- the scorn and opprobrium he used to get has curdled into pity and now, at last, apathy.
Enough. He is of the past. Today, we celebrate the present. And at the end of the afternoon, we hope to welcome the future with, at last, a victory in the Hudson River Derby. The first one, and not the last.