The Hudson River Derby hasn’t been kind to New York City fans. It’s been a one-sided affair that’s mostly resulted in pain for Pigeons fans and joy for Red Bulls fans. The one-sided nature of this rivalry is best reflected by the contrasting fortunes of the team’s leading strikers. Going into today’s game, David Villa had scored just once in the eight games of the rivalry. Bradley Wright-Phillips, in contrast, had scored eight times and notched one assist on top of that.
Derbies, rivalries, clásicos — whatever you call them, at their best these games bring out something special in everyone. And I mean everyone. Fans get more amped than usual; this was New York City’s first sellout of the year, with 33,679 showing up. Role players make their mark; Ben Sweat notched his first MLS goal earlier this season in a Derby match.
David Villa is one of the greatest MLS players of all time; he’s certainly in the top three. As good a player as he is, it was only a matter of time before he etched his mark on this Derby. His woeful play in the Hudson River Derby till now was a stark outlier in his MLS performance.
New York City controlled most of the first half, but Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles — one of the best in the league — kept the door firmly shut on the Pigeons. But even a goalkeeper as great as Robles can only do so much.
In the 28th minute, Villa took advantage of a mis-kicked pass that caromed off teammate Alexander Ring. Villa pounced on the ball, calmly rounded Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, and slotted home.
This is the Hudson River Derby, though, and nothing here comes easy for New York City. In the 41st minute, Bradley Wright-Phillips found himself unmarked, as he does. Not marking BWP is like offering raw steak to a tiger; the tiger will kindly thank you for your gift, and make short work of it. Wright-Phillips shot and scored; the game was level going into halftime.
And, though New York City had dictated matters for 41 minutes, now New York would have its say. The Red Bulls high press did what it does best: choked the life out of New York City’s office, playing havoc with its ability to patiently create. While the Pigeons found offensive outlets by going direct, this isn’t a team that’s built to play directly.
Then, in the 64th minute, it happened again. An almighty scrum ensued off a Red Bulls set play. Once more, Bradley Wright-Phillips was unmarked. Once more, he scored.
New York led 2-1; they were in control. Red Bulls fans bellowed in the stands — We want seven! We want seven! — recalling the nadir of this Derby for New York City fans. Death; taxes; a loss in the Hudson River Derby: these things loomed inevitably in the mind, their inevitability a specter haunting the stadium.
At some point, David Villa would etch his name in the Derby, and not in infamy. The difference between great players and the rest is that the former will create their own moments of greatness. Sometimes out of something, even something minute; and sometimes out of nothing.
That point came in the 72nd minute, eight minutes after BWP notched his second goal. Out of nothing, came this moment. Villa took the ball at midfield, and then drove. He drove at one Red Bulls player, then brushed him off, then into the box he drove, and then he drove the ball home into the goal. A despairing dive from Robles could do nothing.
Like that, the game was tied. It remained that way for three minutes more. In the 75th, Sal Zizzo (briefly a New York City player) fouled Villa in the penalty area. It was a penalty.
Or was it? This is now the age of video reviews in MLS, and referee Baldomero Toledo decided to confer with video official Allen Chapman. Players paced; Villa gesticulated at Toledo, wondering what the decision would be.
It was a penalty. Toledo placed the ball on the spot. Villa stood over it, regally, breathing deep of the stadium’s atmosphere. Cheering quieted as fans awaited the penalty shot.
The penalty wasn’t just a goal. It was Villa’s 17th goal of the season, giving him the Golden Boot lead. And it made for not just a hat trick, but a hat trick in the Derby, and his first MLS hat trick.
The game wasn’t over yet. The Red Bulls sought an equalizer, and would have their chances. But those chances were snuffed out when Zizzo earned himself a second yellow card, and an ensuing ejection, in the 90th minute. A last-gasp free kick came to nothing in the 92nd minute.
The win marks the first time that New York City have won back-to-back games in the Hudson River Derby. But the psychological impact is greater than that still. The Red Bulls came into this game riding high. They’d won four games on the spin, and done so by gaudy margins. New York City awaited them as a shadow of themselves; they’d lost 4-0 to Toronto FC, and were 2-2 in their last four games.
When New York went up 2-1, you could feel the despair in the air. You could physically grasp the impending sense of doom. But that all changed in the space of three minutes.
Next up for New York City: a road trip to Los Angeles to take on the Galaxy. The MLS secondary transfer and trade windows close on Wednesday; we’ll see if CFG add any more pieces to this roster, whether by straight addition or through subtraction from what they have.