WASHINGTON - If the Atlantic Cup has lost a bit of luster and relevance in the shadow of the massive crowds, multi-million dollar players and flying sawdust of Cascadia, nobody's told D.C. United or the New York Red Bulls.
To both Eastern Conference clubs, Sunday afternoon’s match-up at Red Bull Arena carries the same fervor and passion of any other match in MLS’ oldest rivalry, one that dates back to the days of Gio Savarese, Tab Ramos and Jaime Moreno and lives on through names like Chris Pontius, Bill Hamid, Dax McCarty and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
"I think with the amount of new players that we had on our team last year, we didn’t quite understand the significance of the rivalry until we first stepped on the field against them, “ D.C. United midfielder Chris Rolfe told MLSsoccer in a phone interview on Friday afternoon. “We all understand how important this game is to the fans, residents, to the organizations involved — so it’s easy to get up for these games. The fans and the atmosphere always help stoke that fire.”
"I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get up for these games,” added Pontius. "It’s great to see other rivalries, but to us these are the biggest games of the year.”
Sunday’s encounter carries does carry a bit of added weight for United, a club that put together a historic turnaround in 2014 but found themselves bounced out of the Eastern Conference semifinals by an in-form Red Bulls side. Though most United players say they’ve moved on from that defeat, some have used the memories of that series — which included a first leg that many on the team consider their worst performance of the year — to add a bit of fuel to the fire.
"I don’t think we necessarily think about our individual performances [in that series],” said Pontius, "but I think the fact that we were knocked out of the playoffs because of a poor first leg, I think that’s the motivation there. As for who played well, who didn’t, we know as a team that we just didn’t play well on the day and we know we have to do better than that. I do think there is a bit of a revenge factor - factor that into the rivalry itself and it being New York’s first home game, and there will absolutely be some emotions at play.”
Despite the playoff flame-out, United retained nearly all key pieces involved in their 2014 turnaround, preaching continuity and fiscal responsibility in the offseason. It’s been a different story up I-95, where the Red Bulls parted ways with several difference makers – chief amongst them retired French legend Thierry Henry and charismatic head coach Mike Petke.
Still, United see a dangerous opponent ahead.
"I think it’s obviously going to be quite a different approach by them this year, obviously losing Thierry, then losing Mike and bringing in Jesse [Marsch],” said Rolfe. "I think it’s going to be much different than the team that we played last year. They did bring in [Sacha] Kljestan and Felipe though so I think they’re still strong through midfield and once they start clicking Bradley Wright-Phillips will get some chances up top again.”