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NYCFC rise, Red Bulls' fall have New York derby primed for fight

After Sunday night's Portland-NYCFC game, we have an MLS first. By beating the Timbers 2-1 on the defending champs' home turf, NYCFC has tied the Montreal Impact for the top of the Eastern Conference.

We might just get a rivalry in New York this season.

Anyone with any sense of MLS history, the routes the Red Bulls and New York City FC took to the first Hudson River derby last season, and the wariness Red Bulls fans felt for the introduction of an instant rivalry might have been forgiven for a fair degree of skepticism about whether all this was going to work.

And yet, the atmosphere at Red Bull Arena for that first game on May 10, 2015, was unexpectedly charged. A vocal and prominent NYCFC support showed up at one end of the stadium. At the other, Red Bulls fans raised their tifo game for the occasion with a pointed "20 years late and a stadium short" banner to inaugurate the cultural tone of their relationship with "them across the river."

Red Bull Arena, a great stadium when packed and vocal, was operating near its peak. Among the press corps it was possible to see veteran writers nodding in approval, albeit with eyebrows raised. For anyone worried or dismissive about the "plastic" nature of this engineered rivalry, the atmosphere felt surprisingly organic.

And then the whistle blew, the Red Bulls scored almost immediately and we remembered that this was a game between the early-season front-runners and a top-heavy expansion side.

Apart from a brief lead NYCFC held in the one game of the three that was held at Yankee Stadium, that was the way it stayed all year. From that early goal by Bradley Wright-Phillips, to Matt Miazga's golf-swing celebration, to Mike Grella nutmegging Frank Lampard, the iconic images on the field were virtually all red.

New York Red Bulls fans' tifo
The atmosphere at last year's New York derby was an instant hit. The product on the field should match in 2016.

A couple of weeks ago, you wouldn't have put much money on that changing any time soon. NYCFC could not buy a win at home and continued the historic pattern of shipping goals faster than David Villa could score them, while the Red Bulls looked to be putting a shaky start behind them with emphatic defeats of Orlando City and FC Dallas. New City manager Patrick Vieira's honeymoon period was over, while Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch looked to be reminding people of what he had wrought after a turbulent start to 2015.

But this league is about as predictable as this presidential primary season, and we've had another waxing and waning of fortunes in the days leading into this game that should prepare us for anything on Saturday. And that's an exciting and necessary prospect as this rivalry tries to take hold.

For one, NYCFC started winning; three wins in a row leading into Wednesday's draw in Toronto. And it could have been four wins but for a last-minute Montreal goal in the game that preceded that sequence. Villa continues to be the talisman, but the support from midfield for once looks to have found a balance that creates behind him as well as supporting the defense when needed.

Vancouver lost 3-2 at Yankee Stadium to finally give NYCFC a home win this season, and an efficient 2-0 win in D.C. and a 2-1 win in the house of champion Portland mean New York City will be as confident as we have ever seen.

And the Red Bulls? The loss to D.C. last weekend was as weak a performance from that team as we have seen since Marsch arrived, and that has to be a major concern. There were big, unexpected losses at moments in last year's Supporters' Shield-winning campaign as well, but they tended to come from teams having freakishly efficient play on the counterattack -- such as Orlando's late-season 5-2 victory at Red Bull Arena -- rather than Marsch's team simply not showing up, which seemed to be the case Friday.

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The bizarre aspect of that is that the Red Bulls dominated D.C. in regular-season and playoff soccer last year, and as their players, staff and fans are generally at pains to remind us, the rivalry and history with D.C. takes precedence over any other rivalry, including the one with NYCFC. Yet on Friday, they made a team that looked pedestrian in trying to break down NYCFC a week before, in the same stadium, look by far the sharper side.

The visit of Chicago to Red Bull Arena in midweek represented something of a wrinkle going into the weekend's game. A 1-0 win against a tightly organized Chicago team certainly had its virtues, not least keeping a clean sheet and putting the Red Bulls' recent record back onto a decent-looking footing. But Chicago has not won on the road in 30 games, and the Red Bulls' goal came from their only shot on target as they struggled to break down the Fire. And it was at home, where all but one of their points have come this season. Saturday's game is on the road, where the Red Bulls have been wretched.

So with NYCFC finally looking stable, and given the respective states of minds of the two teams, for the first time in the brief history of this rivalry we're probably going into a New York derby with the blue half of the city favored to take something over the red. That may in fact be the Red Bulls' best hope, rediscovering the collective chip on their shoulder that helped them to unexpected success last season.

Meanwhile, there's a degree of expectation from everyone watching that at some point NYCFC must actually deliver a result that moves the bragging rights across New York. That's when we'll start to have a rivalry that's truly worthy of the name.

Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.

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