The words will carry around a sold-out Red Bull Arena on Sunday night, loud and unmistakable. For the past 17 years there has been a primordial tone when Red Bulls fans scream out, “We hate D.C.”
The rivalry dates back to the league’s inception in 1996 when the two clubs were the most geographically connected in MLS. There was a natural dislike between the two sides that, according to former New York goalkeeper Tony Meola, began from the onset of play that first year.
“It kind of felt that way from the start, at least for me it did. I think there were a lot of common factors in terms of former teammates and friends. Certainly, D.C., those first few years, was the model team of Major League Soccer in terms of winning championships, winning, building and having a great fan base,” Meola told Metro New York.
Born in New Jersey, Alecko Eskandarian remembers growing up watching the rivalry on television before he played in it for United from 2003-06.
“It is a huge rivalry. Arguably the biggest rivalry in MLS, and I had the luxury of knowing all about it while growing up in North Jersey,” Eskandarian said.
“While in D.C., anytime a foreign player would sign with us they were made aware that New York was our biggest rival through one of the other players, staff or the front office. As a pro, those are the games you love to play in because the fans are so into it.”
Sometimes, the fans are into it a little too much.
Violence has flared up from time to time between the fans, including a famous incident in 1996 when a United fan somehow managed to fire a bottle rocket at the New York bench. There have been flare-ups between fans too, with Red Bulls supporters famously being targeted by D.C. United thugs in 2006 after a match at RFK Stadium. Roughly 800 fans traveled in buses from the New York area and upon exiting the stadium, stragglers from the group were the targets of beer bottles and fists from wannabe hooligans.
A member of the Empire Supporters Club, the largest and oldest group supporting New York, Sergio Delgado has seen his fair share of the rivalry matches. Before moving to California, Delgado and his famous drum kept the beat for the hardcore fans. He made several trips to D.C. to experience the rivalry as part of the “away support.”
“To me it is one of the things I look for to measure a successful season — probably only secondary to being in a cup final. When we play D.C., I expect the players and management to treat this game as serious as if they were in the MLS Cup final,” Delgado said.
“It is not just another three points won or lost, but actual club and city pride on the line; perhaps even more on the line than a cup final.”
Follow Red Bulls beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for news and regular updates from practice.