The most intriguing prospect in this year’s MLS Cup playoffs is the potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC.
The two clubs have very different histories. The Red Bulls were originally named the New York-New Jersey Metro Stars in 1996 before being taken over by the soft drink company and rebranded in 2006. No matter what the club has been called it has not had much success during their 20 years.
They were the last of the original MLS clubs to win any silverware (they have now twice won the Supporters Shield, the title for the regular season) but have always failed in the playoffs. Their best performance was in 2008 when the Red Bulls snuck into the MLS Cup finals only to be defeated by the Columbus Crew.
NY City FC has had a much shorter club history, starting play in 2015. Owned jointly by the New York Yankees ownership and Premier League team Manchester City, the team opened their checkbook to achieve instant success. They loaded up on former European superstars David Villa (who scored 23 goals this season), Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo to form the backbone of the team.
The big spending game-plan of NY City FC was the road the Red Bulls used to follow. In previous seasons the team had acquired stars Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Marquez at the twilight of their careers. That approach did not lead to success on the field, and the past few seasons the Red Bulls have lowered their payroll significantly.
Currently, their most expensive star is Premier league-reject Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored 24 goals during the regular season. US National team player Sacha Kljestan has recorded 20 assists pulling strings in the midfield. Mistakes are cleaned up by defensive midfielder Dax McCarty. The team has also invested heavily in training homegrown talent to fill out the squad.
The “El Plastico” Derby
When New York City FC entered the league, the front office of Major League Soccer tried to drum up an intense competition between the two clubs. Fans of both sides, feeling the rivalry was manufactured, dubbed the team’s derby matches the “El Plastico.”
The Red Bulls have mostly dominated the match up against New York City. In six games over the last two seasons, the Red Bulls have outscored New York City 18-5, including a humiliating 7-0 loss at Yankee Stadium last May. The Red Bulls supporters have proclaimed New York “Red” after their domination over NYCFC, which has hoped to turn the city “Blue.”
As the season came down to its final month both New York teams found themselves battling for the top spot in the MLS Eastern Conference. The Red Bulls overcame NYCFC down the stretch to claim the top position for the playoffs. In the upcoming round of the playoffs, the Red Bulls will play Montreal while New York City FC will visit Toronto.
If both teams can overcome their opponents that would set up a home and away series for the New York clubs to advance and play in MLS Cup. Those two games may lay the real foundations for a true rivalry between MLS’s two New York clubs and for its fans true bragging rights about who is the best team in America’s greatest city.