The Red Bulls were founded in 1994 as one of Major League Soccer’s original 10 teams. They were called the New York/New Jersey MetroStars up until 2006, before the team was rebranded after Austrian energy drink company Red Bull GmbH bought the club.
During the inaugural 1996 MLS season, the MetroStars featured two US National team legends in Tony Meola and Tab Ramos, Venezuelan striker Giovanni Savarese and Italian midfielder Roberto Donadoni. A squad with marquee names mixed with the luster of playing in America’s biggest—and arguably most important—sports market meant the MetroStars were expected to be a force in the States’ fledgling top flight. Unfortunately for the club, those expectations never came to fruition, both during that inaugural season and every year since.
The Red Bulls have a notorious reputation for building their fans up with hope before succumbing them to annual disappointment. That trend of failure began on April 20, 1996.
Two years removed from hosting seven matches during the 1994 World Cup, Giants Stadium was the site of the MetroStars first ever home game. The away side on that April day was the New England Revolution, who, like the MetroStars, lost their opening match of the season and were hungry to notch the club’s first three points.
The game was a dull encounter, but with 15 seconds left, New England’s Darren Sawatzky broke down the right wing and aimed a low shot to Meola’s far post. The American keeper saved, but only managed to lightly parry the ball to the feet of MetroStar defender Nicola Caricola. Facing his own goal and with an onrushing Revolution player closing in, Caricola seemed to be caught in two minds when he chipped the ball over Meola, scoring an own goal and handing victory to the visitors.
With that own goal, the Red Bull’s first game in front of their home fans ended in disappointment—an emotion that would become all too familiar. To this day, Red Bull fans point to that incident as the moment they were cursed.
Despite winning the Supporters Shield in 2013, 2015 and 2018, the Red Bulls are the only member of the still-existing ten original MLS teams never to have won MLS Cup or the U.S. Open Cup. And until they do, the Curse of Caricola will live on.
New York City FC plays its home matches at Yankee Stadium, the home of the New York Yankees—a team that hexed their bitter rivals with the most famous curse in sports history: the Curse of the Bambino.
Even though NYCFC shares a stadium with baseball’s flagship franchise, they’re decades away from garnering a sliver of the clout their pinstriped brethren boast. The club was only founded in May 2013 after Manchester City and the Yankees teamed up to pay the $100 million expansion fee to join MLS.
NYCFC’s nascency didn’t affect its ambition. The club splurged on two Champions League winners in David Villa and Frank Lampard before their first official match, and added a third in Andrea Pirlo halfway through that first season.
In the four seasons since, the club has reached the MLS playoffs three times out of four, but only one of their three initial superstar signings remain. Villa has held the club captaincy and been top scorer every year since the team’s inception, having notched 80 goals in 124 appearances. On the other hand, Lampard left NYCFC in 2016 after making only 29 appearances during the course of two seasons, while Pirlo made 62 appearances over three seasons before retiring in 2017.
To many, the Red Bulls biggest rival is D.C. United, a team that can also boast being one of MLS’s original ten teams. But unlike the Red Bulls, D.C. has a winning pedigree few teams in MLS can match. The capital club has won four MLS Cups, four Supporters’ Shields and three U.S. Open Cups. They also won their first four playoff matchups with the Red Bulls (in ‘96, ‘04, ‘06 and ‘12) before finally losing one in 2014. In all competitions, United have the better record with 43 wins to the Red Bulls’ 34, while there have been 16 draws between the teams.
On the contrary, the Red Bulls have only faced off against NYCFC in the Hudson River Derby 14 times since the Bronx-based club was founded, with none of those meetings occuring during the playoffs. The Red Bulls have won eight matches to NYCFC’s four, while there have been two draws.
It’d be easy to say D.C. United is the Liverpool to the Red Bull’s Manchester United, while NYCFC serves as Manchester City, but MLS is so young—not even 30 years old—that the dynamics of MLS rivalries are incomparable to most of world football.
Right now, in 2018, the Hudson River Derby is special because of its potential. There is tremendous upside to the derby because it has the chance to transcend how New York sports fans perceive intra-city rivalries.
In American football, the Giants and Jets compete in separate conferences and don’t play each other every season, which means there are rarely significant encounters between the two teams. In the NBA, the Knicks and the Nets play each other four times each season, but they’ve both been so atrocious for the greater part of this decade that any time they meet, there is little fanfare, let alone animosity between the two sides—especially because the Nets only moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn six years ago. In baseball, the Yankees and Mets compete in separate divisions, although they do play each other between four and six times a year. But the baseball regular season in 162 games long, and six games mean little in the grand scope of a season, especially when the two teams have rarely been contenders at the same time.
At the moment, there is only one great New York sports rivalry: the Rangers vs. the Islanders in NHL hockey. The Rangers play at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan while the Islanders have called Nassau Coliseum on Long Island home for most of their existence. The difference in location means there’s a city vs. suburb dynamic between the two franchises. That slight dissimilarity in culture is the kind of spark that sets derbies alight.
We’re the same, but different; and that makes us want to beat you even more.
The Red Bulls and NYCFC are the same because they have New York in their names. They’re different because the Red Bulls represent the tri-state area while NYCFC represents New York City. And it’s that home turf pride that drives banter between the two fanbases.
NYCFC supporters love reminding Red Bull supporters they play in New Jersey, not New York. On the flip side, Red Bull fans continually mock their rival’s home field. Yankee Stadium is great for baseball, but it’s dreadful for football. At 100 m long and 64 m wide, the pitch is the smallest allowed by FIFA guidelines and significantly alters the dynamic of matches it hosts.
The most convenient facet of playing at Yankee Stadium for NYCFC is the fact that fans can access the stadium via subway. The New York City subway is notorious for delays—among many other things—but if you live in one of the five boroughs, you have a vital link to NYCFC home matches.
Red Bulls fans who live in the city will quickly point to the fact that their home stadium, Red Bull Arena, is also accessible by public transit by a subway-like train called the PATH. But taking the PATH into New Jersey from NYC includes an added mental barrier.
Uh, I have to go all the way to Jersey just to see this game.
It’s not that big a deal, but our minds play tricks on us, and NYC residents who become MLS fans in the coming years will choose NYCFC over the Red Bulls because picking between the two is like picking between New York and New Jersey, and New York wins every time. Red Bull fans mask that Jersey inferiority complex with their club’s history, something NYCFC won’t be able to boast for at least a few decades.
Since the Hudson River Derby began in 2015, there have only been a scarce number of games that have left an indelible mark on the rivalry.
The first occurred in May 2016—a 7-0 victory for the Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium. It was the first matchup between the two teams of the 2016 season and NYCFC were looking to notch their first ever win against the Red Bulls. Because the game was being played in the Bronx, and the season was still very young, it was the perfect chance for NYCFC to announce themselves as contenders, especially since they were on a club record five-match unbeaten run under new manager Patrick Vieira.
The game was set to be aired on national television in the States immediately after the conclusion of the FA Cup Final between Crystal Palace and Manchester United—a match that wound up being a thriller. The derby wound up being a thriller, too. It was just a different genre of thriller.
The Red Bulls scored three minutes into the game and added two more before the halftime interval. Then they punched in four more goals during the second half to hand NYCFC a defeat neither fan base will ever forget.
After the match, then-Red Bull captain Dax McCarty tweeted “Touchdown #RBNY”, a cheeky nod to the final scoreline, which mirrored that of most American football games after a team opens the scoring with a touchdown and extra point.
The second game that will be remembered for helping lay the groundwork for the Hudson River Derby occurred in August 2017 at Yankee Stadium. As Graham Parker wrote in FourFourTwo, it was the first back-and-forth match the two sides ever played. The tackles were harder than usual; the atmosphere was amplified ten notches; there was a sequence when three goals were scored in 12 minutes; and the end result was unpredictable until the final whistle blew.
David Villa opened the scoring in the first half thanks to a fluke deflection that put him clear through on goal. Bradley Wright-Phillips answered back just before halftime and then put the Red Bulls ahead in the 63rd minute with a tap-in finish. Villa responded right back eight minutes later with a Messi-esque swivel dribble and shot that proved too much for the Red Bull keeper. Villa completed his hat trick and NYCFC’s comeback with a penalty in the 75th minute.
When the referee finally singled for the end of the match, NYCFC walked away 3-2 winners and Villa jumped into the arms of Vieira, demonstrating just how special the victory was. Supporters and neutrals alike were left thinking, “now that was a derby.”
Since then, the Red Bulls have produced two 4-0 wins at home, NYCFC notched a 1-0 clean sheet at Yankee Stadium and the two other derbies that took place ended in 1-1 draws. We’re all still waiting for the same fireworks from that afternoon in August 2017.
The good news is the derby has all the time in the world to improve; to add more chapters to its young story; to foster more animosity between the two fan bases. And it’s in the perfect league to do just that.
American soccer has been on a steady uptick for over a decade now, and while the MLS will never find itself equal to the Premier League or La Liga or the Bundesliga, it does have the chance to become something totally unique to the rest of world football. Today, it’s a place where aging superstars at the tail end of their careers mix with local upstarts looking to make a name for themselves and seasoned journeymen search for their next great adventure. It’s a giant football ruckus.
The Hudson River Derby isn’t something to be scoffed at; it’s not fabricated; it’s not a marketing ploy; it’s just young. And like most of American soccer, all it needs is a little time to catch up.