When New York City FC hosts the rival New York Red Bulls Saturday (3 p.m., FOX) at Yankee Stadium there will be much more at stake than places in the standings.
NYCFC is running neck-and-neck with the Montreal Impact for first place, while the Red Bulls are in eighth place of the 10-team Eastern Conference. The host team would like nothing else than to keep its cross-river rivals near the basement, while continuing its march up the ladder.
Coming off an exhilarating 2-1 win in Portland last Sunday at a 1-1 draw against Toronto FC on Wednesday, NYCFC will be looking to avenge losses last season to the Red Bulls. The teams met three times in 2015 – NYCFC’s inaugural campaign – with the Red Bulls winning all three. The more established Red Bulls haven’t lived up to expectations so far this season, however, making Saturday’s tilt all the more important.
NYCFC goalkeeper Josh Saunders will be the key. The veteran Saunders is a former MLS champion and coming off recent strong performances filled with highlight-reel saves. His experience in big matches will serve the team well.
Saunders won’t be the only star to take the pitch. NYCFC’s roster seems to be loaded this year, with the likes of David Villa, Mix Diskerud, Tommy McNamara, and Andrea Pirlo leading the way.
The Red Bulls will counter with striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who hopes to reclaim his dominance over the squad. A former English Premier League footballer, Wright-Phillips made his claim as the best player in the rivalry last season when he dominated play. He scored in each of the three matches and four times overall. He netted both goals in the maiden match between the teams, last year on May 10 – a 2-1 Red Bulls victory -- and then tallied one more apiece in the remaining two games. The two clubs have only battled once at Yankee Stadium, which means this Saturday’s game will undoubtedly be led by a raucous crowd, itching to gain some revenge.
NYCFC is averaging over 29,000 fans per home game and is led by their raucous bleacher contingent known as the Third Rail. They hope to channel that energy into the hometown players.
Rising star forward Kwadwo Poku noted that playing in front of the Yankee Stadium crowd and in front of such a starved fanbase ignites the team to heights not even the most ardent Blue fan can realize.
“Every time I see them up there cheering for us, I feel like I can give them everything I have to make them happy,” Poku said. “I don’t know how to thank them for supporting us. They should keep supporting us [because] we’re going to make it fun.”
Poku, whose name is bellowed by the faithful any time he enters the match, isn’t the only player who thinks playing in front of the home crowd will give NYCFC a decided advantage.
Forward Patrick Mullins said the support always feels surreal.
“It’s special,” he noted. “The fans really show up, participate and cheer. The atmosphere feels right … like there’s somebody behind us on the pitch pushing us forward.”
Forward is the plan for NYCFC as it tries to break the tie atop the standings and pull away from the Impact. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, just hope they can use this tilt as more than just bragging rights in the Metropolitan area, and actually get back into the Eastern Conference race.
- NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira has come across a nice problem this season, as he has to find ways to get more playing time for risings stars like Poku, defender Ronald Matarrita, auxiliary midfielder McNamara, and forward Khiry Shelton.
- Matarrita will be suiting up for his native Costa Rica, later next month, as he made the final cut for the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
- McNamara and Shelton are on the rise and will likely be on the U.S. national squad’s radar – or in the former’s case, maybe even on the Irish National Team’s radar, thanks to his Irish-born paternal grandfather.