HARRISON, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls and D.C. United typically don’t agree on much. And so it was again at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday evening, even without a minute of soccer being played.
“It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?” said United president and CEO Kevin Payne Payne. “I guess it’s just New York and D.C. We always seem to have wild stuff happening, so this is just another chapter.”
This time, the oldest rivalry in Major League Soccer played out in the carpeted corridors underneath the snow-filled stadium, with the two clubs taking diametrically opposed views on the suitability of the league’s decision to postpone the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal to Thursday due to RBA’s unplayable pitch.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” said Red Bulls coach Hans Backe, citing the risks of injuries and poor-quality soccer on the soaked playing surface. "I mean, in my opinion, this was a very easy decision, to postpone the game."
United coach Ben Olsen, visibly agitated as he addressed reporters some 20 yards down the hallway from where Backe stood, had a very different read on the situation.
“My boys wanted to play, I wanted to play and I thought it was a playable field at this point,” he said. “At some point, it starts to get a little bit – you start to think, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ I’m upset. I’m upset because I’ve got some guys that, the look in their eyes [showed me] they were ready to go today.”
Already peeved by the move to flip-flop venues in this series due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy, United’s traveling contingent of some 700 fans were particularly unimpressed with the decision. To some of them, the move favored New York’s high-priced but injury-prone Designated Players at the expense of Olsen’s workman-like squad.
So Wednesday night is likely to be woven into the Atlantic Cup rivalry’s 17-year narrative of passion, antagonism and occasionally, downright weirdness, with both sides nursing old grudges.
The bad blood got flowing right off the bat in 1996, when a MetroStars visit to RFK Stadium for a league match was marred by a bottle rocket being fired at the visiting team’s bench from the stands, striking an equipment manager. Later that year, the teams faced off in the conference semifinals of the inaugural MLS Cup playoffs. Back then, a three-game series was used, and after New York and D.C. split the first two matches, the score was tied at 1-1 late in game three at RFK Stadium.
It looked like the old “NASL-style shootout” would decide the series, but then MetroStars defender Rob Johnson rashly chopped down United’s Marco Etcheverry in the penalty box, allowing D.C. to advance on an 89th-minute penalty and, eventually, win MLS Cup.
Mike Petke (pictured, right) is currently a Red Bulls assistant coach, but he wore the uniforms of both teams during his playing career and earned one of the strangest red cards in league history while playing for the MetroStars in an Atlantic Cup match in 1999. Referee Michael Kennedy cautioned him for a foul on United striker Jaime Moreno, then whipped out a second yellow card when Petke kissed the ball in frustration.
"Let's go to the video tape," Petke told the New York Daily News after the game, which ended 4-1 in D.C.’s favor. "I kiss the ball and give it to him. I don't say anything. He gives me a red card. Nothing happens to him. I'm going to get fined. This just epitomizes our season [which ended with a 7-25 record]."
Four years later, New York coach Bob Bradley helped his team win an overtime match in hot conditions at RFK by cunningly gaming the league’s fourth substitution rule, which was intended to allow a goalkeeper to be replaced.
Bradley briefly moved netminder Tim Howard into a field position, putting midfielder Mark Lisi in goal, then replacing him with Eddie Gaven. Gaven and Howard quickly switched places when the ball went out of bounds and Gaven roamed forward to score the game-winning goal, earning Bradley the nickname “Cheatin’ Bob” among some United supporters – and prompting a league-wide rules change.
The Black-and-Red would take their revenge, and then some, when they met New York in the postseason a year later. Earnie Stewart scored a controversial opening goal in leg one of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at Giants Stadium, laying the groundwork for a 4-0 aggregate win for D.C. while MetroStars fans complained bitterly that Stewart was well offside.
In 2006, United striker and New Jersey native Alecko Eskandarian scored a goal in another 4-1 win over New York at Giants Stadium and celebrated by swigging, then spitting out a mouthful of Red Bull, which earned him a $250 fine from the league.
The teams would meet yet again in that year’s conference semifinals. That occasion was lit up by the strong play of a teenage Jozy Altidore but ultimately won by United star Christian Gómez (pictured, right) – the Argentine who had spent an Atlantic Cup match pounding on a drum with United's Barra Brava supporters' group while serving a suspension the previous season – scored the series-winning goal in the 86th minute of leg two.
D.C. defender Bobby Boswell, now with Houston, threw himself out of the way of a ball deep in the penalty box in order to allow the chance to fall to the deadly finishing skills of Gomez instead, a move he later compared to Keanu Reeves' heroics in The Matrix.
Will more odd history be made at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night? Don’t bet against it.