Rivalry Week

Why New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC has its magic back


In the early years of the Hudson River Derby, I was obsessed with doing better than David Villa.

We were nowhere close to the same weight class with our career accomplishments and profile. But I knew if New York Red Bulls were to beat New York City FC, I had to outperform him.

Honestly, I wasn’t even really looking at NYCFC’s defenders. I just thought if our defenders have a good game, keep Villa quiet and I can score a couple of goals or even one, we’ll have a good chance at winning. More often than not, one of us would decide the outcome.

Villains, players fans love to hate, stars who own big moments – rivalries need that. And I would argue that, in recent years, Red Bulls vs. NYCFC has gone down absent all that. Yes, things were different during the pandemic. You had games without fans. There were still some quality players on both sides. But everything’s felt different; there hasn’t been the same buzz and excitement.

Here in 2024, though, I believe the Hudson River Derby can surge back. And that starts Saturday at Citi Field as part of Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

New star

Red Bulls are playing the best football they've played in years. NYCFC are turning a corner. Both teams are top four in the Eastern Conference, separated by only three points. And now there's a true star involved in Red Bulls’ captain, Emil Forsberg.

Emil, with all the talent he possesses, all his skills and qualities, he's a game-changer. In a game like this, where it will be tight or hang in the balance, he's got a moment of magic he can pull out of his hat. Same with Lewis Morgan and his goalscoring form right now. If you’re Red Bulls, that gives you comfort. If you’re NYCFC, that gives you players to hate and create motivation around. NYCFC’s closest player to that is probably Santi Rodríguez, and I don’t think he’s yet at the same level. Can he step up and become a Red Bull killer?

Both teams also have local players, domestic players who have experienced how fiery this derby can be. John Tolkin. James Sands. Daniel Edelman. Keaton Parks. Sean Nealis. Tayvon Gray. That energy matters. They add to the feistiness.

Nerves & moments

We had a lot of those elements when the Hudson River Derby began. It was 2015 and NYCFC had just entered MLS. I was in a groove at Red Bull and I was so eager to have a derby I could make my own.

From growing up in England, derby matches mean everything to me – they’re almost like a cup final or a World Cup match. As an Arsenal fan, how we did against Tottenham or Manchester United, that was what everybody was talking about all week. Win and you were floating on air. Lose and you'd hear it from friends at school.

I took that same kind of passion into every Red Bulls vs. NYCFC game; that’s how much they impacted me. Maybe I should say “nerves” because I rarely got nervous before games. But it was a completely different story before those derby matches.

I felt like there was so much on the line. I knew if we lost, a bunch of guys on the other side were ready to talk s--t and they would get bragging rights. With the opposing fans, you’d hear about it on social media until your next game. I was honestly scared to lose, which might have been why I usually did well. NYCFC and D.C. United were the teams I scored the most against in MLS because I knew there was no room for a mistake, there was no excuse. I couldn't lose. That whole week, I was a nervous wreck. At home, I wasn't easy to be around before big games like that. Everything had to be right. I was on edge.

I'll go further: Winning the derby game, it's almost not even a celebration for me. It was more like a relief. Like, ‘Thank God we didn't lose that.’ It was a weird time, man. It's exciting, but it was so scary also.

But make no mistake: I’m fortunate to have some amazing memories of the Hudson River Derby. I scored the first goal on an assist from Lloyd Sam. There’s the infamous Red Wedding, where we won 7-0 and I scored twice. And then there’s our first game against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium.

We were a goal down at halftime and everybody was so angry – we were almost going at each other. Dax McCarty was the captain at the time and he goes, ‘Someone f---ing make a play!' He was singling out us senior players. It wasn’t good enough. We couldn’t get embarrassed like that.

What happens next? Two minutes into the second half, I scored off an assist from Sacha Kljestan. Then we get two more goals from Chris Duvall and Matt Miazga. We win 3-1 and we’re going home happy.

New York is…

That just shows these derby games often aren’t about tactics, they’re not about your form. It's about somebody stepping up. It’s about scrapping for everything. It’s about being desperate, clawing for every inch.

And players can talk about going one game at a time, all that. But let’s be honest: A game or two before a derby, it's getting mentioned around the training facility. Then you start to see it on social media. I don't care what footballers say in interviews: You see everything. Fans are trash-talking and you’re starting to think about how you can silence them.

Or maybe the other team’s on a good run and you're like, ‘Damn, I don't know if we got it this year. Can we beat them while they're playing this well?’ All of these things are going through your mind. Even your fans, they’re letting you know you need to win. You might try to avoid it, but you can’t.

And here’s the crux of everything: Derbies need a hero and a villain, somebody who owns the moment. Fans need someone to love and they need someone to hate. It’s bragging rights and three points at all costs.

This year, the Hudson River Derby should get that back. NYCFC are playing well – they’ve got a young, talented squad that’s on the rise. The Red Bull system always gives them a chance and there’s some real quality now, not just the high pressing. Morgan, Forsberg, Rodríguez, even an unexpected star. All the elements are here for the magic to rush back. We’re in for real quality.

And, after the 90 minutes, I know New York will be… drum roll, please… RED!!! Did you really expect me to say anything else?