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June 16, 2017

Is Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls a 'rivalry' game?

Soccer Union
61617_red bull rudds Paul Rudderow/Philly Soccer Page

Sacha Kljestan gives Fabinho a sarcastic thumbs up in a 2016 Union vs. Red Bulls game at Talen Energy Stadium.

Philadelphia hates New York and New York hates Philadelphia.

That's the drill, right?

The Rangers suck, the Knicks suck, the Giants suck, and the Mets really suck.

Likewise, if you're a Yankees fan, then Philly is a "small" city with disgusting fans and horrendous sports teams.

That's the general feeling, but does the animosity also apply to Major League Soccer?

The historic sporting distrust between the cities certainly paved the way for some natural loathing that Union fans immediately began to direct northward in 2010. New York had been playing since 1996, resulting in an atmosphere of pseudo-rivalry that might not have been entirely reciprocated by Red Bull fans.

You'd probably have to start by defining a sports "rivalry." Location and history are the main factors, but Union midfielder Chris Pontius describes the "feel" of the game as another thing to consider.

"In terms of proximity, yeah, (it's a rivalry)," Pontius told PhillyVoice on Friday. "In the way the games have felt as a player, yeah, (it's a rivalry). How the fans look at it, I really don't know. I think they enjoy it, too. But I think the proximity and the way the game feels as a player, then yeah, it's a rivalry."

Sunday will mark the 23rd meeting between the clubs, with eight Union wins, 11 Red Bull wins, and three draws. The teams have played three times in the U.S. Open Cup and are scheduled for a fourth matchup on June 28th at Red Bull Arena. They have not met in the postseason.

Head coach Jim Curtin has used the term "rival" to describe Red Bull in the past but walked that back a bit this week.

"I slipped up and said rivalry just because the proximity is something," Curtin told reporters after training. "But I'm more of a believer that rivalries are really formed in the playoffs and a real tough series. We haven't had that. They're a team that obviously is familiar with us. There have been some wild games between us, so I think there is some spice in there, for sure, whether it's the Open Cup games or past history between the teams. How competitive (each team is) is something we're working towards as well. They've been a Supporter's Shield winner and they've been in that conversation for the past couple of years. They're a top team and we're working to get into that area as well. We're not quite there yet, so anytime we can test ourselves against them, then there's a little something extra in there."

"In terms of rivalry – what's a rivalry and what isn't – if you have to ask the question I think it's usually not. It's similar when you ask, 'is X player a hall of famer?' If you have to pause and think about it, then he's not. That's kind of where I am with that."

In past comments, Red Bull players and coaches have described their games against Philadelphia in a manner that suggests heightened importance. The Union might not be public enemy No. 1, but there's more buzz surrounding the game, at least inside the New York locker room.

Mark Fishkin, who has covered the Red Bulls since 2010, doesn't see a rivalry but feels like it's moving in that direction.

"If Philly had been an original team, then absolutely (it's a rivalry), given the animosity between the fans in both cities in just about every sport," Fishkin said. "But I think it's going to take the two teams meeting in the playoffs to generate some real spark. Obviously, I think Red Bull fans had their hair blown back a bit after C.J. Sapong dropped a hat trick on them in 20 minutes in the last match. But I don't think the two teams are at a point yet where Red Bull fans consider them to be rivals."

That's a sentiment shared by Dave Martinez, who wrote about the Red Bulls up until 2016.

"I think the Union and Red Bulls matches are on the cusp of becoming a widely recognized rivalry," Martinez explained. "I, like many others, believed that locality was secondary to the story on the field between these two sides. For years, there wasn't much to play for. In recent years, however, thanks to some key regular season results and mostly due to the U.S. Open Cup competition, there has been a deeper disdain between these clubs. Does it match up against Red Bulls/NYC FC or Red Bulls/D.C. United? Not yet. But it is certainly on its way."

That's the key for me; the idea that Red Bull already has two rivals.

NYC is the new kid on the block, providing a true derby feel between two teams that play in the same metropolitan area.

And D.C. United is the historic rival, the club that has been battling with New York for 22 years.

"It's just been around longer, so that was the original I-95 rivalry," said Pontius, who played for D.C. from 2009 to 2015. "Then Philly comes in, in 2010, so it's basically that Philly (vs. New York) just doesn't have the years behind it that the D.C. vs. New York rivalry has."

With D.C. and NYC currently receiving the bulk of Red Bull fan ire, is there really any room for Philadelphia? Does a third rival even mean anything?

"It's a really good question, frankly," Fishkin said. "We've been playing New England since the start of the league, as well. Some of those games, especially in the last few years, have been tight, but I don't see the same animosity between the fan groups. I'm not sure if there is room, but I know that (it will take) the two teams meeting with something to play for. And you could argue that three straight U.S. Open Cup games is a great way to start to build that rivalry. It's a good, open-ended question. I think just time and history is what it's going to take, as well as players from both teams building up history between themselves on the field. I think that'll go a long way."

There's also this to consider: Does it even matter what fans and media think?

If Jim Curtin, Chris Pontius, Jesse Marsch, and Sacha Kljestan view this as a rivalry game, doesn't that hold more weight than anything a spectator says?

"The players certainly view it as a rivalry, none more than Thierry Henry, who relished in defeating New York sports' traditional rival city," Martinez said. "Members of the media are split on the topic. But ultimately, you don't have the derby atmosphere without the fans. And if they don't hate the other side, it doesn't matter what players and media believe."

"We know there's animosity, for sure, between the fan bases," Curtin added. "There's familiarity between the coaching staffs. We certainly know each other and want to beat each other. Everyone is really competitive in that group, when you talk about Jesse, or Chris Armas, or Denis Hamlett on the technical staff, then Sacha Kljesta and Bradley Wright-Phillips – these are guys who are some of the most competitive in this league. They want to win. We want to win. We like to think we have a group that is also cut from the same cloth. I think there can definitely be what's considered a rivalry, internally, from us.

"The fans have their thing and obviously, the media has a viewpoint on it as well. It's fair for all three sides to (see) a different level of that rivalry. Obviously, it's fair to say that NYC FC is probably their biggest one since they're both New York teams. That has a little more fight to it. But we know where we stand and we have to get a result on Sunday."