By now all of us have seen, heard, or read about the utter destruction of New York City FC at the hand of the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. The club was trounced to the tune of 0-7, the worst loss in the club's brief history, and tied for the greatest margin of victory in MLS history. To lose like this is devastating in itself. To have such a loss at the hand of the team's rivals just pours an entire bottle of salt onto the wound.
Now I know what some will, in particular third party fans of MLS: THIS ISN'T A RIVALRY. And on some levels, those people are correct. Rivalries usually consist of some back and forth between opponents. Right now, it's only been 4 matches and the Red Bulls are sitting pretty at an undefeated 4-0 in this Derby. New York City FC has not struck any blood to date and that definitely makes it hard to call it a rivalry. It most definitely doesn't help matters that MLS has force fed this Derby down the country's throats, hyping it as the must see rivalry match, even above other long standing rivalries in MLS. They even put the game on FOX proper on Saturday afternoon, moments after the English FA Cup final. No other matchup has gotten that sort of treatment. So I get the resentment nationally about how this rivalry has been hyped up. But here's the rebuttal:
To both NYCFC and RBNY fans alike, this is a rivalry. Neither fanbase can stand the other. This is real. Nothing manufactured about the tension between both groups. And like any rivalry involving New Yorkers, it can get chippy and even violent. However, this is still a budding rivalry in it's infancy stages. We all need to accept and agree upon that. But let's examine a few key elements as to why the Red Bulls have dominated this Derby so far:
It's a Match-up Nightmare
One of the biggest reasons the Red Bulls have owned this rivalry is because they are almost perfectly built to negate NYCFC. Last year, under Jason Kreis, the team was very focused on being a possession based style of team. And this year it's more of the same under Patrick Vieira, only leaning that way even further with Vieira's mantra of wanting his team to be able to play out of the back. This has led many teams in MLS to try and counter NYCFC by implementing a high press. The high press requires a high energy defensive push where the entire team is constantly harassing the opposition's back line in an attempt to create turnovers in choice spots of the pitch - namely, your own attacking third. We saw Vancouver employ this tactic and even got this early minute goal out of it as well:
The Vancouver Whitecaps knew Saunders was uncomfortable with the ball at his feet and attacked him as a weak link in New York's passing scheme. So this isn't new territory here. NYCFC has been scouted and countered before the game against the Red Bulls.The Portland Timbers were also another team that deployed a high press against NYCFC. The result was NYCFC only being able to muster 39% of the possession, a definitive season low for the club. The team, however, adapted and picked their spots effectively which led to a 2-1 victory.
The Red Bulls are a different beast than the previously aforementioned clubs. While these other teams utilized the high press against NYCFC, it's not something either team is typically known for. Red Bulls, however, have built their primary game strategy based on the high press. They are intrinsically a high press team, akin to the likes of Jürgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund and now Liverpool teams. Jesse Marsch has developed his roster to be 11 attacking hounds who will hunt you down for the ball. A team like NYCFC who wants to play out of back must have Jesse Marsch chomping at the bit every time they get to face each other.
And the reason this strategy is so effective versus NYCFC? Passing ability. MLS is a vastly improving league and has a ton of exciting talent. But it is still not a league known for it's technical ability. While you can have a player like David Villa or Andrea Pirlo who are very deft and technical with the ball, you're putting those few names in a starting XI not as adept in passing the ball. And that's where the team consistently runs into problems with the high press. Players like Brillant, Josh Saunders, etc. are just not deft enough with the ball at their feet to overcome a press at the level of a team like the Red Bulls. So then what happens? Turnovers. And lots of them. The team constantly found itself trying to put out self-inflicted fires in their own defensive third, which led to throw-ins and corner kicks for the Red Bulls. This takes us to another reason why the Red Bulls continue to dominate our boys in blue:
Set Piece Deficiencies
Remember this play?
That's Dominic Oduro and the Montreal Impact pulling out a draw at the death off a free kick. Oduro is able to get his head on the ball unabated and it cost NYCFC vital points in the process. Set piece defense has been a long term problem for the club even dating back to last season. Red Bulls game into this game with that knowledge in mind and had a feast on set pieces all game long. Nothing drove this point home more than Dax McCarty's brace: two headers on set pieces.
That's right, Dax McCarty - who has 18 MLS goals total in his career - scored a brace on Saturday. And to top it off all 5'9" of him scored both winning headers off of corner kicks. McCarty is not what you call an "aerial threat". But again you could tell this was something Red Bulls were ready to exploit. It's no accident Sacha Klejstan was pinging corner kicks to McCarty, who was being marked by Ronald Matarrita. Matarrita has been one of the better players so far this season and has contributed greatly. That being said, he has to do better on both of those headers by McCarty. On the first one he gets caught ball watching and reacts too late. And on the second he simply let himself get outworked by McCarty. As a defender you can't allow the attacking player to outwork you. These are just two of the shambolic displays NYCFC put out there on Saturday.
This last one is a subjective take, but I'm going to put it here anyway. Over the course of this budding rivalry it's been abundantly clear that the Red Bulls have been the team with the collective chip on their shoulders. They've come to every match ready to take it to NYCFC. They celebrate every goal scored against them like it's the MLS Cup final. Winning these games means something to the Red Bulls, and it shows. Meanwhile, the best I could say about NYCFC is that they approach these matches like they were any other game. Here's what R.J. Allen was quoted as saying after the loss:
I don't want to single his comment out, but it symbolizes the point I'm trying to make. And while, yes, it's good to have some levity to the game and not get too low that it effects you moving forward, this is not what you're fans want to hear after a painfully brutal loss. The fans do not want an even-keeled logic from the players they root for. They want desperation. They want their players to treat these matches the same as they would treat the MLS Cup final. Because it means that much to the fanbase. The Red Bulls have taken it to NYCFC every game like they are the team with something to prove, and it should be the other way around. To this point in time, NYCFC has proven absolutely zero as a club. They've done so much to engage the city and build an impressive fanbase. But keeping fan support in New York means winning. It also means showing up against any team that could be considered a rival.
This should come to no surprise. It's the same in Manchester. It's the same in London. It's the same in Madrid. This match on Saturday is a black eye on the club and it's fanbase. The players need to understand that. They need to play like they need redemption the next time these two teams face off. Because you know what: they do. It's going to take a long time for any fan of New York City FC to get over this demoralizing loss. I believe Patrick Vieira understands this. I hope the players understand this as well. The team can ill afford to continue having this "it's only game" mentality versus the Red Bulls. Because that's now how the other side is treating it.
Red Bulls are not a new team like NYCFC. They've been in MLS since it's inception, first as the Metro Stars and now as the Red Bulls. They've had rivalries with other teams for decades, like D.C. United. They know what it takes and what energy you need to bring into these rivalry matches and they are showing it to NYCFC time and again.
It's time for New York City FC to start taking notes and pay attention. Otherwise, it'll never become a rivalry on the pitch. And if it never becomes a rivalry on the pitch, how long will the fans continue to support this club? Only time will tell.