It's a scenario that seemed positively unfathomable a month ago, prior to their Week 30 clash Sunday at Red Bull Arena (1 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes).
Back then, NYCFC were flying high and RBNY had just concluded a run of one win in 11 matches this summer. In the six games since, the Red Bulls have picked up four wins and two draws, vaulting up the Eastern Conference standings while NYCFC have slipped to just one win in their last eight.
A few of those results came against each other, including their last meetings – back-to-back games on September 22 and 25 – the first of which was shrouded in controversy. NYCFC were nursing a one-goal lead during the second half when Keaton Parks was controversially shown a straight red card. They hung on before a Video Review decision ruled Maxime Chanot committed a handball deep into stoppage time – and gave him his second yellow of the match, thus another red – before Patryk Klimala buried the equalizer from the spot in the 112th minute (!), a dozen ticks into added time.
Frustrated though they still may be, NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila is trying to look forward.
“I can’t use energy on that now," Deila told media when asked if he was still harboring ill-will from that match. "When you bring it up, I get irritated but I don’t use energy on it. It’s done.”
A few days after the penalty debacle resulted in a 1-1 draw, the Red Bulls beat NYCFC 1-0 at Yankee Stadium. Deila is intent on his side not ending the regular season without a victory over their rivals.
“It’s a local derby, I don’t think there’s any problem to get them going," Deila said. "It’s a big challenge for us, we need to get a victory against them. I know we can do it, it means a lot. When you look at the standings, every point matters. Motivation is not a problem.”
Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber shared similar sentiments.
“I can feel my boys always have high motivation," he said. "In training, in the games. But the fans help with big inspiration. A special spirit, a special power. I think our supporters are in a big heart with us.”
The Red Bulls' unbeaten run has put them firmly in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race, sitting just three points below the line in ninth place. A win would, at worst, see them draw level with NYCFC. Depending on how other results go, they could be tied for points with as many as four clubs (D.C. United and CF Montréal each are tied with NYCFC on 40 points, while Atlanta United have 39).
“We have to win this game," Struber said succinctly.
“We have a good plan, we are ready," Struber later added. "We can win this game with all of our power, but we have big respect for a massive opponent.”
NYCFC entered 2021 expecting to be fighting toward the top of the East and that's where they were much of the season, until recently. Even with a lackluster run of form, Deila remains adamant his group can achieve great things.
“Our top level is really, really high which is exciting but our bottom level is way too low," Deila said. "That happens when you have a lot of young players, the level goes up and down. The Red Bulls have a young team too, I’m sure they agree with that. But we need to get our good moments more often and our lower level to be better. If we do that, we are capable to do anything. Our goal is to win something.”