It took New York City FC until their fifth attempt to notch the landmark derby win over the New York Red Bulls they had been targeting for over a year. As the city’s latest MLS franchise, there is a certain symbolism placed in every meeting between New York's two teams, as if the power balance between them could be encapsulated in 90 minutes.
NYC FC’s 2-0 win over the Red Bulls in July of last year was significant, though. They had suffered a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of their Hudson river rivals less than a month before, underlining that for all their improvement under new head coach Patrick Vieira more work had to be done before they could catch Jesse Marsch’s side. Their first derby win was emblematic of the closing of the gap.
Of course, NYC FC still couldn’t stop the Red Bulls from finishing top of the Eastern Conference for the second successive season, with Vieira’s side finishing a respectable second. But 2017 could see an even greater power shift in the New York soccer scene. This could be the year New York City FC finally eclipse the New York Red Bulls as the city’s predominant force.
That happened in the transfer market a while ago, with NYC FC becoming the city’s primary destination for big names almost as soon as they were announced as a MLS franchise. This coincided with the Red Bulls dialling down on their own transfer market approach, deciding not to replace Thierry Henry as the global face of the club, instead opting to build a more balanced side.
That method has worked for the past two seasons, with the Red Bulls arguably MLS’s most consistent regular season outfit, but there have been signs that some of the fizz might have been lost over the off-season. Marsch has a job on his hands to sustain his team at the level they set for themselves in 2015 and 2016.
He’ll have to find a way to compensate for the loss of club captain Dax McCarty for starters, with the midfielder traded to the Chicago Fire. It was a move that came as a major surprise to the MLS community and it’s not yet clear why the trade was sanctioned in the first place. McCarty was, after all, an integral component of the Red Bulls’ lineup. He was the beating heart of the team. His loss will be felt.
But perhaps a more significant development at Red Bull Arena over the winter was the departure of sporting director Ali Curtis, the man credited with the moneybag reinvention of the Harrison franchise in recent years. Reports out of the club hint at a disagreement between Marsch and Curtis over the trading of McCarty, but whatever the truth Curtis is now gone and the Red Bulls have a rather large void to fill.
All this has coincided with the galvanisation of New York City FC across the Hudson. There has been no such upheaval at Yankee Stadium, with the only notable move seeing Frank Lampard leave and Argentine Maxi Moralez arrive in his place. Vieira believes his side have improved over the winter.
“Last year was a good season, but it wasn’t good enough for us as a club, and what we wanted to achieve,” the former Arsenal midfielder explained last week.
“I believe that this year the team is stronger than it was last year, I think the roster is much better than it was last year.
“I think we have better players overall. I think last year we didn’t have so many choices, regarding the players that we had. I think this year there will be more competitiveness between the players and that will help to get the best of every single one of them.”
Considering the improvement NYC FC charted by finishing second in the East last season, Vieira is placing down quite the marker by stating they have improved even further. Of course, this could be chest-beating oneupmanship, designed purely to rile up their rivals who have endured a rather more turbulent build-up to the 2017 campaign, but if Vieira is right the red half of the city should feel blue about the season ahead.
There’s reason to believe he is indeed right. Alexander Ring, Yengel Herrera and Miguel Camargo probably won't sell many shirts at the club store, but their additions are shrewd and will undoubtedly give NYC FC better options across the field. They might not have plucked from the top tier of the transfer market, but with David Villa and Andrea Pirlo still there star power won’t be an issue.
MLS introduced New York City FC in 2013 with the intention of sparking up a rivalry in New York that had until that point been lacking. The Red Bulls, as the established team, have led the way so far, but that might be about to change.