HANOVER, N.J. – There was a time earlier in his career that Ronald Zubar remembers getting ready to head to practice with French soccer team Marseille and finding the windows of his car smashed in. It was the week leading up to Marseille’s match with Paris Saint-Germain, their biggest rivals and the PSG supporters were sending him a message.
Talk about perspective ahead of this Sunday’s first ever meeting between the established New York Red Bulls and the expansion New York City F.C.
The game is being billed as a rivalry of sorts even though the two teams have never met and one of them – NYC F.C. – has been in existence for just nine games. But for the most hardcore of Red Bull fans, those in the South Ward supporters section and, in particular, the Empire Supporters Club, this match isn’t quite the same level of hatred as some other teams.
The rivalry – or rather ‘derby’ in global soccer parlance – with D.C. United is much bigger for these fans. That one goes back to the league’s inception in 1996 and many in the ESC remember those early days of MLS and how that rivalry spawned naturally. So forgive them if this match between two teams that have no history with each other comes across as contrived and manufactured by the league, not by natural hate.
That team down I-95 is the Red Bulls historic rivals, not this team that comes into Red Bull Arena this Sunday (7 p.m., FS1).
“It isn’t a rivalry yet. But it is nearly impossible for it not to become one considering the proximity and the excitement it has built so far,” said Eric Rios, an ESC board member who lives in northern New Jersey.“Right now it’s at the bottom of the list. And they have a long way to catch up to D.C. in the hate-o-meter, but it may only take a game or two for them to begin climbing that ladder.”
For Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, this match may be billed as a rivalry but it is also a bit of a statement game as well. This past offseason was a peculiar one for the Red Bulls, with a head coaching change and the loss of marquee players such as Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. Across the river, his opponent on Sunday made big splashes with Spanish international David Villa and English legend Frank Lampard as well as Mix Diskerud, a regular with the United States national team. NYC F.C. was the new, shiny thing in town.
For the Red Bulls, who went the way of understated signings rather than the big (and often pricey names) of the past, the formula has worked. They were the last team to lose a game this season and they’re currently entrenched in the top half of the Eastern Conference.
New York City F.C.? Second from bottom in the conference and struggling.
“Right now I think it’s indicative of where the clubs are. I think this is an established club everywhere from an established history to established facilities and a workforce that is familiar with each other from the top down. As a team we may be new but I think there’s a lot of established relationships within this team, within this organization,” Marsch said. “And they’re new and they’re going through all these things for the first time really; and I know what that is like because I’ve been coach of an expansion team and I know how difficult that is. I don’t look at is anything other than them starting to establish themselves and us continuing our process.”
The players in his locker room have sounded a certain level of enthusiasm over this match. Bradley Wright-Phillips, who spent the entirety of his career in England before coming to MLS two years ago, thinks that the presence of the expansion team being so close to Red Bull Arena is a good thing. Other players echo these sentiments, especially those who have played overseas and are familiar with the intensity of these type of games.
Roughly 1,500 NYC F.C. supporters are expected to be present at Red Bull Arena on Sunday night, making this an electric atmosphere off the field. The banter right now is mainly restricted to social media and message boards and likely will be relatively tame come gametime, at least by European standards.
“It’s been good, you hear about it, you feel it,” Zubar told Metro. “It is exciting for the fans and special for them. These matches are always big. I’m looking forward to being there for it, being a part of it – hopefully.”
And hopefully his car windows remain intact.