Red or Blue? What the first-ever Red Bulls-NYCFC match says about New York

NEW YORK -- They would never admit it publicly, but I’m willing to wager that the New York Red Bulls want to beat New York City FC in the worst way this Sunday at Red Bull Arena.

Sure, the two Big Apple clubs have never met before on the field, and they seem to be headed in opposite directions, results-wise, this year, but believe it: The Red Bulls need to win this one.

The roots of that need stretch all the way back to the 1970s, when the New York Cosmos of Pele (above), Beckenbauer and Chinaglia lit up in the Tri-State area sporting firmament, drawing enormous, celebrity-studded crowds to Giants Stadium before flaming out in 1984 and leaving a 12-year blackout in their wake.

The Red Bulls, born in 1996 as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (a strong contender for most challenging team name in the history of professional sports) struggled early on to escape that Cosmos shadow. They got off to an inauspicious start when, in their home debut, they lost to New England, 1-0, on a late own goal by ex-Juventus defender Nicola Caricola, an episode dubbed “the Curse of Caricola,” which was blamed for the next umpteen years of trophyless existence.

But they banished that curse by winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2013. They have now lasted five years longer than the original Cosmos did. They are the only pro New York-area club many soccer fans around here have ever experienced. And they’ll be damned if they’re going to let some upstart expansion team come into their house and snatch a win in the historic first installment of this derby.

As for those upstarts, NYCFC obviously want to win the game, too — and badly. Not only would it be a bold shot across their more established neighbor’s bow, but NYCFC haven’t won in seven matches. They could use three points as much as they could use the bragging rights.

But let’s be honest: The bulk of the pressure in this one falls on the Red Bulls. NYCFC are still in the honeymoon phase with the local fan base. Owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, the expansion club made several splashes in the run-up to their debut season, signing iconic Spanish striker David Villa (above), English legend Frank Lampard and rising US star Mix Diskerud. They also hired a smart, MLS-savvy coach in Jason Kreis. Then they flooded the marketplace with their subway-token logo, their sky-blue jerseys and Villa’s smiling mug. Their first season ticket holder was a Hall-of-Fame-bound pitcher, and their season-ticket sales are already above 16,000.

Considering the Red Bulls’ struggles to deliver trophies in the past two decades, it’s conceivable that some of those NYCFC season ticket buyers are former Red Bulls supporters. (Gasp!) Not me, of course. I’ve supported the same team with my money and my (frequently aching) heart since 1996, and I’m sticking with my club. But I’d be lying if I told you the pull toward the Bronx wasn’t there. I told my son, upon whom I’ve inflicted Red Bull fandom since before he had much say in the matter, that I wouldn’t be offended if he jumped ship. He’s sticking with RBNY. So far.

It’s a good choice this year. The Red Bulls, who suffered through a winter of discontent, have taken the stage this spring with aplomb. Shaking off the departures of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill and the controversial firing of head coach Mike Petke, they went unbeaten in their first seven matches and head into Sunday’s game with a 3-1-4 record, good for third place in the East. They boast a team-oriented new guard led by their midfield trio of Sacha Kljestan (above), Felipe and Dax McCarty.

Meanwhile, NYCFC are 1-5-3 and languishing in ninth place in the East. They have struggled so mightily on the field that their head coach lamented recently, “I didn’t realize it would be this difficult.” Given their recent form, the newcomers look ripe for the taking.

But as with most derbies around the world, you can toss out recent form for this match.

Sunday's clash isn’t just about three points. Or the standings. It’s about choosing loyalties in a city full of options and strong opinions. In nearly every aspect of life, New York City offers (at least) two sides and frequently asks which one you’re on. Yankees or Mets? Jets or Giants? Brooklyn or the Bronx? Above 14th Street or below? 

How you answer each question says something about you, and the abundance of them says something about New York.

So ... red or blue?