New York City is not short on sporting rivalries.
Most recently, basketball took centre stage as the Brooklyn Nets signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, much to the chagrin of New York Knick fans.
Although rivalries are often a product of geographic proximity, it is not the closeness, but the distance in identity that supporters are keen to stress.
Take New York City FC and New York Red Bulls, for example. The two teams are five years into their shared existence in Major League Soccer, and battle lines have been drawn.
The fact the Red Bulls play in New Jersey has often been an easy target for jokes with NYCFC fans.
In response, Red Bull fans poke fun at NYCFC playing their home games at an ill-equipped Yankee Stadium. The off-field back and forth has been an intriguing sub-plot, and when they take to the field, the difference in approach is pronounced.
The Red Bulls style of play has crystallised in recent years. At the heart of their plan has been a high press known throughout the league. It is an accommodating style in the sense it does not demand that players are supremely technical.
Instead, it requires players to be physically fit and aware of their position on the field as it relates to the rest of the team -- meaning it is highly teachable. The Red Bulls have one of the lowest wage budgets in MLS. Their style was devised by RB sporting director Ralph Ragnick, to bridge the gap between richer and poorer teams.
It was first implemented by Jesse Marsch, and during his three-and-a-half-year tenure, the team won the Eastern Conference twice as well as collecting a Supporters’ Shield in 2015.
His departure to RB Leipzig in July last year —days before the derby— facilitated the promotion of Chris Armas from assistant to head coach. Since then, there have been only minor changes to the way the team plays. The main difference has been an attempt to make the team better in possession by adapting the formation, among other things.
For NYCFC, controlling possession has been a cornerstone of their identity in recent years following the appointment of Patrick Vieira in 2016. During that time, there have been peaks and troughs. NYCFC can, and have, played some of the most attractive football in MLS. They have also been strangled by their lack of versatility and made little headway in the playoffs -- an accusation that can also be levelled at the Red Bulls.
The Frenchman’s work has been continued by his successor (and Pep Guardiola’s former assistant) Domènec Torrent. The Spaniard has not been afraid to incorporate tactical ideas seen at the Etihad. Just as Guardiola has redeployed players in new positions, so too has Torrent.
The 57-year-old has also encouraged full-backs to take up central positions when in possession to help the team in the build-up (interestingly, Armas has also used this approach). Torrent has been keen to experiment with different formations this season, but overall the principles remain the same.
Both teams rode out a tough start to the season but went into Sunday’s derby in better form (the Red Bulls had won four of their last eight, NYCFC had lost just one of their last 11). Despite so many shared qualities, however, it’s that fundamental difference in style that often makes for an exciting match between the two.
On Sunday, the Red Bulls ran out 2-1 winners amid some controversial officiating in which a throw-in was incorrectly awarded to the Red Bulls instead of a corner, which in turn led to the winning goal.
And yet, while headlines may dilute the game into one incorrect decision, it was heavily influenced by that tactical difference.
“On goal kicks, they are putting guys 10 or 15 yards offside into your half, it makes your backline uncomfortable,” Chris Armas said afterward. “It forces you into a little bit of a passive mode; so they were setting our line instead of us seeing our line, and we are at our best when can compress spaces and be aggressive.”
Guardiola has often used this approach during goal kicks to create space and negate an opponent’s attempts to press.
In response, the Red Bulls dropped deeper, and that encouraged NYCFC to pass out from the back. The Red Bulls have struggled this season when playing against a bunkered opposition. NYCFC began coming onto their opponents which allowed the Red Bulls to instigate a press in the middle of the field and disturb the rhythm of the game and give themselves the advantage.
All in all, it birthed another engaging chapter in this rivalry. Although the two teams may be considerably different in how they approach the game, in actuality, they share a few more similarities than perhaps either would care to admit, just like all good rivals.