The Red Bulls have a chance to do something Saturday the franchise has failed to do since its inception in 1996: Beat D.C. United in a playoff series.
The sad history dates back to the first year of the league in what might still be the best playoff series MLS has ever seen. The MetroStars (now known as the Red Bulls) were supposed to be the dominant team of MLS with American World Cup stars Tony Meola and Tab Ramos.
They salvaged their season to make the playoffs and split the first two games of their playoff series with D.C. United.
The scoreboard read 1-1 as the clock ticked down and the deciding game appeared headed toward a shootout. But D.C. United threw together one last attack as their star player, midfielder Marco Etcheverry, drove into the penalty area only to be tackled from behind by rookie Rob Johnson.
Etcheverry, a star of the Bolivian national team and one of the premier names in the early days of MLS, converted the penalty kick to eliminate the MetroStars.
“I know Marco – a great player – I know he beat us in the previous game,” Johnson told Metro. “I know that I saw him receive the ball at the top of the 18. I thought I could make a play on a tackle of toe poking the ball away. I saw an opportunity. But unfortunately, a great player like him took his first touch into the box before I could poke the ball away. I committed and got a lot of his body.”
The moment is part of a deep rivalry between these two teams. It became clear early on New York fans didn’t like D.C. fans and vice versa as a rivalry was born that would carry on until today.
Johnson still follows the Red Bulls closely. He will be watching Saturday’s game from his home in South Jersey, hoping the franchise’s curse against D.C. United in the playoffs will be lifted after 19 seasons.
“I definitely will be watching it,” Johnson said. “I root for the Red Bulls. I hope they can get a result. It would be nice for the Red Bulls to finally take out D.C. It is something that hasn’t taken place. Hopefully they will make history on Saturday.”
“Listen, I have a bad memory. Even though I put it behind me, I still remember the games and battles we had. There’s no hatred, but if it’s Red Bull against D.C., I’m definitely going with Red Bull.”
An estimated 1,000 Red Bulls fans will travel to D.C. on Saturday (2:30 p.m., NBC) to cheer on their team, one of the largest away support groups ever in MLS. New York beat United, 2-0, in the first leg of the series.
Follow MLS writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.