HANOVER, N.J. — Omir Fernandez got his first taste of the New York Derby from the stands at Yankee Stadium in 2016. Then 16 years old and part of the New York Red Bulls academy, the Bronx native made the 15-minute trek from his home for what promised to be a fun day out in early July.
Everything was perfect — the sun was out, the weather was warm, the stadium was packed, the tickets were cheap and he and his boys were in the first row of the section.
There was only one problem.
It was the New York City FC supporters section.
One of Fernandez’s close friends bought the tickets, which he said only cost $20 apiece. He also offered Fernandez some sage advice — don’t wear any Red Bulls gear.
“They were all going to wear NYCFC jerseys and I was going to wear a Red Bulls jersey. And they told me no, don't wear one, I think where we're sitting is not a good place,” Fernandez said. “Turns out we were right in the supporters section. We were at the very front, like at the front row. It was like some good seats, actually. It was nice.”
So there was one of the future Red Bulls Homegrown standouts, surrounded by the most passionate NYCFC fans. Fernandez wore neutral colors and tried to keep his emotions in check.
“Yeah, it was weird because I remember us having a lot of good plays and I think Luis [Robles] made a lot of good saves and us creating a lot of chances,” he said. “Sometimes I was getting excited and I was going like ‘Oooh,’ feeling it. I was thinking to myself I can’t do this right here. I had to stop myself a few times.”
It didn’t take long for everyone around him to lose their minds. On the other end of the field, Jack Harrison beat a pair of Red Bulls defender with an audacious sombrero flick before placing a low shot past Robles to give NYCFC a 1-0 lead in the 8th minute.
“Everybody in the crowd was crazy, and I was fake clapping,” Fernandez said. “I was like, ‘Damn it.’”
Harrison was one of the reasons Fernandez went to the game. The English winger played one season at Wake Forest just before Fernandez became a Demon Deacon. Fernandez said he met Harrison on a recruiting trip and watched how he tore it up at Wake in his one season there before being selected No. 1 overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft by the Chicago Fire and being traded to NYCFC moments later.
Now he was watching Harrison score the game’s first goal and then set up David Villa for a second-half insurance goal to lift NYCFC to a 2-0 win, their first derby victory after four consecutive defeats.
Three years later, Fernandez doesn’t need a ticket for the 13th league meeting and 15th overall between the Red Bulls and NYCFC. He’ll likely be part of the Red Bulls 18-man gameday roster when the teams square off for the first time in 2019 on Sunday (6:30 PM ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN1 in Canada) at Red Bull Arena.
Fernandez, who has two goals and two assists in 13 league appearances since signing as the club’s 21st Homegrown Player in January, has managed to turn some of those friends from the blue side to the red.
“One of my friends is fully converted now and one of them is half and half,” Fernandez said. “Whenever he comes to Red Bulls games he’s full on Red Bulls, and when he goes to NYCFC games he still has that New York City FC side to him.”