The New York Red Bulls could hardly be looking forward to any opponent more than the one they'll face when they kick off their MLS is Back Tournament campaign against Atlanta United on Saturday (8 pm ET | FOX, TUDN; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).
They might not share particularly close proximity geographically, but Red Bulls-Atlanta matches have nonetheless emerged as one of the league's up-and-coming rivalries since the Five Stripes joined the league in 2017. And to hear RBNY captain Sean Davis tell it, that's happened organically through matches that always seem to be hyper-intense and competitive whenever the sides get together.
"When I think about the rivalry with Atlanta, it's very authentic, it's very real," Davis said. "It wasn't built before a game even started, it's been all because the games have been so competitive, so demanding, there's never a dull moment in the rivalry. So, I think that there's a strong foundation there, there's a clash of styles. It's hard to rank the rivalry because I think we have some other awesome matchups, when you think about New York City FC, but I think Atlanta's up there."
"I think it's a game that both teams really get up for and both teams, as far as the players go, are really pumped and excited to play against each other," he added. "I think it has all the makings to be a great rivalry in this league for a long time and I can speak on behalf of our guys that we couldn't be more excited to start the tournament against a team like Atlanta."
With that in mind, the Red Bulls are aware that means they'll likely be going from 0 to 60 to start the tournament following the lengthy layoff, which presents its own set of challenges.
Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said that with his team's uptempo, high-pressing style, he's spent a lot of time thinking about how he'll employ the five-substitute rule instituted for the tournament to keep his team fresh, adding that the familiarity and intensity that comes with matches against Atlanta make this a good barometer for the team stands coming out of the gate.
"We feel we know Atlanta well," Armas said. "And knowing them well and having to play against them, it's two different things because they're a well-coached team, the system is strong. The demands of how Frank [de Boer] has them play, they play well, they can use the ball, but they can also counter-press and play against the ball. They're not easy to break down.
"We have a lot of respect for them, and that's noteworthy. We'll go after them. We love the matchup because it's Atlanta, they're a team that has set the bar high. You always feel like it's a big test on the day -- a test as players, as coaches to coach against maybe the best and to see where we stand. The game will always let you know where you are. We love the matchup and we can't wait for Saturday night."