It’s not often an MLS rivalry casts its shadow across a prominent fixture in the mighty English Premier League.
Sure enough, though, fans and journalists in and around South London and West Yorkshire are getting a crash course in exotic concepts like “Hudson River Derby” and “the Red Wedding at Yankee Stadium” this week, thanks to the managerial matchup at the heart of Monday’s lone EPL fixture.
When Jesse Marsch leads his resurgent Leeds United squad into Selhurst Park to face Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace, it marks not just a clash between the Premiership’s 16th- and 14th-placed sides, but a reunion of two protagonists from some of the hottest years of MLS’s era of two New York-area clubs, which began with the birth of New York City FC in 2015.
“He was in New York with Red Bulls and I was at City. We had some challenging games in the derby,” Vieira told reporters in his pre-match press conference. “I’m looking forward to seeing him again. We have a lot of respect.”
Those who recall the bitter cross-Gotham slugfests Marsch and Vieira oversaw from 2016-18 may find “challenging” a bit of a euphemism.
There was the time Marsch accused David Villa and his fellow NYCFC superstars of receiving special treatment from MLS referees, to which Vieira responded with a call to his opposite number “to stop crying and stop complaining,” adding that he “felt sorry” for Marsch for resorting to such mind games. Marsch later claimed Vieira refused to shake his hand after a 4-1 RBNY win that season in which the Frenchman was sent off, epitomizing the Cityzens’ frustrations in their early Red Bulls clashes.
“Yeah, we had some run-ins, maybe, early,” said Marsch in 2018, “because the rivalry is so emotional and intense.”
The "energy-drink soccer" purveyors owned their arriviste antagonists out of the gates, winning their first four meetings by a combined score of 12-2 – highlighted by the infamous “Red Wedding” in which Marsch’s Red Bulls humiliated Vieira’s team 7-0 at their own house in the Bronx. That skid was ended, appropriately enough, by Jack Harrison, the NYCFC winger who made enormous strides under Vieira’s tutelage and today roams the flanks for Marsch at Leeds.
Amid endless trash-talking from both sides, the blue half of the city eventually hauled themselves into something of a stalemate with their hard-running haters from Harrison. Under Vieira’s stewardship, City rose from 17th in the overall MLS standings in their inaugural campaign to Supporters’ Shield runners-up behind treble-winning Toronto FC during his second season in charge. That laid a foundation that endures today, as the Cityzens can now even gloat about capturing an MLS Cup (2021) before RBNY, whose history dates back to the MetroStars at the league’s dawn.
But Marsch’s gleefully muscular deployment of the Red Bull pressing model – turned up to 11 – provided a compelling contrast to Vieira’s ball-dominant possession style, and gave us a preview of his formula for European trail-blazing that’s taken him to Austria, Germany and now the light and heat of a Premiership relegation fight.
“This is the derby. It was tense,” said Vieira this week. “Always we had respect; I’m really calm on the bench. This is just a rivalry between two managers. We were in New York and he was defending his team and I was defending mine. This is all about passion.”
While neither backed down from HRD jousting in the headlines and along the touchlines, mutual regard grew as both displayed their coaching craftsmanship in head-to-head competition at the business end of the Eastern Conference. Both have praised the other ahead of their matching of wits in arguably the most prominent league on the planet, both needing points to keep themselves above the relegation scrap, especially as Burnley make a late push to escape the bottom three.
“When he came to MLS, we were all excited to have somebody of his stature in the league,” Marsch, who won the 2015 and 2018 Shields at RBNY, said in the run-up to Monday’s Palace-Leeds duel. “Then, when he came to New York City, it meant I had to hate him! But he’s not an easy guy to hate because he’s a very good coach. We had some heated moments when we were in New York together, but over time we grew to really respect each other.”
MLS’s steadily increasing cross-pollination with the rest of the world’s game is also evident here.
Beyond Harrison’s unique journey, this summer Leeds are widely expected to renew their transfer pursuit of US international and Philadelphia Union product Brenden Aaronson from Marsch’s former employers RB Salzburg, and have recently been linked to NYC’s Taty Castellanos and CF Montréal’s Djordje Mihailovic as well. Vieira’s work at Palace has been backed and bankrolled by American owner/investors John Textor, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the latter of whom you might recognize as a leading member of Real Salt Lake’s new ownership group.
As subjective as the topic can be, new pathways in Europe do appear to be opening for those from this side of the Atlantic, with characters like Marsch and Vieira standard-bearers.
“It was the same before with the French managers or French players,” Vieira said. “Gerard Houllier came, Arsene [Wenger] came and did fantastically well and that gave credibility to the rest of the French managers and even the players.
“It was the same when [Eric] Cantona came and [showed] French players can adapt to the league, and that opened the door for the rest of us. When managers from abroad come into the league and do well, they show that any manager can do well in the Premier League.”