It walked like a derby.

Red Bull Arena was sold out for the first matchup between two franchises separated by one river and two decades: the New York Red Bulls, one of the founding members of Major League Soccer met their noisy neighbors from across the Hudson, expansion outfit New York City FC. How rambunctious were the fans from the Bronx leading up to this game? So much so that hundreds of supporters who crammed into a PATH train, along with other non soccer-mad straphangers, were kicked off the train on their first attempt to head to the arena for creating too much of a disturbance.

It talked like a derby.

Right after the national anthem, the South Side of the stadium, full of red-clad Red Bulls supporters, hoisted a 30-foot-high banner depicting a dwarf-like cartoon character dressed in a sky blue outfit with “Man City Lite” across the chest. Above the caricature, it read “20 YEARS LATE AND A STADIUM SHORT.” The upper level of the North Side of the stadium, where those aforementioned NYC FC supporters finally settled, responded to a “Let’s Go Red Bulls” chant with an equally loud riposte of “Screw You Red Bulls.” Well, replace “screw” with a much more colorful word that’s usually uttered so you can really get what the fans were chanting.)

If these 90 minutes didn’t officially turn the nascent matchup into a legitimate blood-and-guts, hammer-and-tongs rivalry, it sure got off to a good start.

Bradley Wright-Phillips, a veteran of rivalries on both sides of the Atlantic, scored both goals for the Red Bulls as they took a 2-1 decision over NYC FC, doing so despite playing almost the last hour of the game with 10 men.

Legendary soccer derbies have stars, controversy and endless drama. Red Bull Arena had all of that to burn tonight. After the build-up of this matchup since the introduction of NYC FC to MLS, what the game needed, after the buildup from everyone not on the pitch, was a dramatic start.

Cue Wight-Phillips and winger Lloyd Sam. Sam’s jinking run down the right flank turned newly acquired defender R.J. Allen into a spinning  top, then he served a cross into the box where Wright-Phillips deposited a right-footed volley into the back of the net after just four minutes.

Rivalry born.

“I think we started off well and I could feel a goal coming, but didn’t know who would score it,” said Wright-Phillips, who led MLS with 27 goals last season. “I think Lloyd Sam did all of the work but it was a great feeling to score in the derby.”

Who knew that Dopey was a NYC FC fan? Here's how Red Bulls fans rolled out the welcome mat to NYC FC to begin the game. (Adesina Koiki)
Who knew Dopey was a NYC FC fan? Here’s how Red Bulls fans rolled out the welcome mat to NYC FC and its supporters to begin the first installment of the derby. (Photo by A. Koiki)

NYC FC thought it had the equalizer just minutes later on a free kick after a Matt Miazga foul and subsequent yellow card. Pablo Alvarez’s dead-ball service to the far post found center back Chris Wingert, whose low shot apparently tied the score. Wingert, however, was judged to have been offside, nullifying the goal and any momentum NYC FC could have wrested right back.

New York City FC soon was given another chance to gain momentum of the match, as Miazga’s clumsy challenge in the 36th minute to prevent a possible 2-on-1 break led to his second yellow card and a sending off. Unfortunately for NYC FC, they couldn’t turn their numerical advantage into any quality chances on goal.

Instead, the Red Bulls took a 2-0 lead just seven minutes into the second half. A shot from NYC FC was deflected by Kemar Lawrence, and the ricochet landed onto the feet of Sam. He then found Sacha Kljestan with a long ball on the left, which eventually turned into a 2-on-1 with Wright-Phillips, and last year’s Golden Boot winner slotted home Kljestan’s delivery for a 2-0 advantage.

Game over, or so it seemed. NYC FC’s two most recognizable and headline players at the moment, midfielder and US Men’s National Team member Mix Diskerud and forward David Villa, were substituted for within three minutes of each other, with Villa, who’s just coming back from injury, appearing clearly unhappy with the move and having a few words with manager Jason Kreis before sullenly reaching the touchline.

But in sports rivalries, you learn to expect the unexpected, and the substitutes who came on played a chief role in NYC FC’s goal that made the finish a little more nerve-wracking. Midfielder Kwadwo Poku, who came on for an ineffective Diskerud in the 64th minute, played a ball to Allen on the left, who made an overlapping run. Allen’s cross found Patrick Mullins, who came on for Villa in the 67th minute, and Mullins’s roof job of a shot beat Luis Robles in goal to cut the Red Bulls’ lead to 2-1 with four minutes to go in regulation time.

In truth, however, that goal was the only real positive aspect of NYC FC’s game, who only managed that Mullins tally as the only shot on goal in the hour the team played with a man up. New York City, for all the pomp, circumstance, and deep pockets they brought to the league, is now winless in its last eight games as it tumbles towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Kreis expressed positivity despite the team’s prolonged funk.

“I continue to see a lot of quality,” Kreis said after the game. “I continue to think that we’re close. I really do feel like every opponent that we’ve played, we’ve been very close. We’re not quite there yet and I think we need some improvement and some more time together. I continue to believe.”

Are we ready to believe that these two teams have officially kicked off a soon-to-be memorable rivalry? Will this new battle for Big Apple bragging rights in the future be more like an explosive Mets-Yankees affair during the time of Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza, or more like a hyped-up Giants-Jets preseason game that usually has little to no lasting impact?

It’s still early days to really tell. Give the matchup more time to build some legitimate enmity, but at least we saw the first official seed of a true American soccer derby planted.

[Cover photo (Bradley Wright-Phillips/Josh Saunders) courtesy of Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post]

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