Ben Olsen gestures on the sideline
USA Today Sports

D.C. United expect emotions to run high as Atlantic Cup rivalry shifts to playoffs for fifth time

WASHINGTON – Major League Soccer’s oldest rivalry is set for yet another installment.

D.C. United will face the New York Red Bulls in an Eastern Conference semifinal series of the MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T, starting Sunday at Red Bull Arena (4 pm ET; UDN, get tickets here), after RBNY’s come-from-behind victory Thursday over Sporting KC thanks to a Bradley Wright-Phillips brace. It sets up a matchup of epic proportions: Atlantic Cup, postseason style.

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“We’re extremely familiar with them and vice versa,” United head coach Ben Olsen said.  I’m sure our fans and organization are excited about the hype of a New York-D.C. playoff match, and from a players' and coaches' standpoint it’s great. I think it’s good for the league. We’re looking forward to seeing what we can do."

The two sides have met in the playoffs on four occasions, and United have emerged victorious every time.

In 1996, United dispatched of the then New York/New Jersey MetroStars in a best-of-three conference semifinal series. Eight years later, United and New York met again, with United winning the series comfortably. In 2006, a Supporters’ Shield wining D.C. side once again sent the Red Bulls packing. 

But perhaps the most memorable of all of this rivalry’s encounters was its most recent, in the 2012 Conference Semifinal.

The series opener at RFK was a wild affair, one that saw each team benefit from an own goal and United lose Andy Najar to a red card after the frustrated Honduran chucked a ball at the referee after the whistle. In the return leg, things went from dramatic to surreal – a freak snowstorm moved in, causing the game to be delayed a day.

D.C. – most notably Olsen, who described the conditions as “perfect” – wanted to play. Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe – and many of his players – did not. When the teams met the following evening, the weather had cleared but the tensions remained. 

United ‘keeper Bill Hamid – who had stood on his head throughout the match – was red carded after a rash challenge in the 69th minute. After a livid Hamid headed to the showers, backup Joe Willis took his place between the posts for the ensuing penalty kick. Kenny Cooper drained the attempt with ease, but referee Mark Geiger correctly ruled that several Red Bulls had encroached and ordered the kick retaken. Willis smothered Cooper’s second go at the PK, and six minutes later Red Bulls midfielder Rafa Marquez was sent walking on his second yellow.

In the 88th, Nick DeLeon calmly slotted home the game winner, sending United through to the Conference Championship.

“I thought the tide had turned,” said United midfielder Chris Pontius, who memorably ascended to the upper deck of Red Bull Arena to thank D.C. fans who’d made the snow-blown trip the evening before. “After we went down a man, we were wondering how we were going to survive. I was thinking at that point, 'How do we take this into overtime and survive.’ And then we get the Rafa Marquez red card and the late goal – I remember the Nicky D play like it was yesterday."

Things have changed since then, of course.

Backe departed at season’s end, replaced by fan-favorite Mike Petke. Most of the Red Bulls squad is also gone, replaced by a collection of players that hoisted the Supporters’ Shield the following year and rose to the challenge once again this year. United, of course, have but a few holdovers from that 2012 side, having been thoroughly overhauled after a nightmarish 2013 campaign.

And as far as Olsen is concerned, 2012 and the other trio of United playoff victories over New York are firmly in the rearview. Fun to talk about, but it’s of little significance when it comes to this year’s matchup, he said.

"Every season is different. All of these records and things that are being thrown out all the time – every year they’re broken. I think the edge we have isn’t about history, it’s from an energy standpoint. I think we’re healthy and rested, and we have to use that to our advantage. It’s still going to be a very tough series, and we’re going to need to be at our best to get through it.”

Still, a rivalry is a rivalry, and United are well aware of the intensity surrounding Sunday afternoon’s matchup. 

“Emotions are riding high in the playoffs more than the average game,” said Pontius, "especially in a rivalry. It’s something we’ve talked about in training this week – you have to be able to keep that emotion in check. You don’t want to do something stupid to let your teammates down. We need to end the game with 11 players and give each other the best chance to get a result."