The Union have finished ahead of their I-95 rivals just once before — they ran two points two places ahead of them with a third-place finish in 2011 — and watched the Red Bulls win the Eastern Conference five times through those first nine seasons.
This year has shaped up much differently for the Union, who have spent 15 weeks in first place in the conference and have been looking down at the Red Bulls in the standings since April 1. The Union are eight points ahead of the Red Bulls after RBNY’s 2-0 win in Portland on Wednesday night as both sides shift focus to their key clash at Red Bull Arena on Sunday (6:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada).
Union head coach Jim Curtin described the Red Bulls rivalry as “a game that as a coach you don’t have to motivate your players a ton” to take part in.
“We tend to bring out the best in each other,” he said.
The Union won this year's previous meeting back in June thanks to a second-half brace from Ilsinho that capped a dramatic rally to overcome a two-goal deficit. The two teams played to a scoreless draw the last time they played in Harrison.
“They have their style of play that has gotten them the results they’ve gotten in the past few years, but they’ve lost a couple players that were crucial to that type of style and I think we can attack them with our good passing, our movement, our style of play, beat their press and counterattack on them,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “We have to be better at making the most of our chances, too.”
Philly have only come away from Red Bull Arena with three points once — four years ago, when the Union won 2-0. With a trip to San Jose midweek and away game at Columbus the following Sunday, the Union will need three points against RBNY to keep the pressure on East leaders New York City FC.
“We’re on a good spell right now, but we have to continue that because it’s going to be a fight from here on out and teams are looking to knock us down,” Union defender Mark McKenzie said.
The road hasn’t been kind to the Union of late, with 4-0 losses at Montreal Impact and Real Salt Lake in July and a 2-0 loss to the Chicago Fire last month. Their one win away from home in their last four was a 5-1 win over D.C. United.
“One of the hardest things in pro sports is when teams are below you, to keep them there,” Curtin said. “We have coming up now New York, who’s going to want points. We have San Jose, who’s going to be desperate for points. So everybody at this point of the year is hungry to take points. So it’s going to be a real challenge for us, and a difficult one.”