If you’re a believer in karma, then Saturday’s Atlantic Cup match against the New York Red Bulls feels a bit like fate. A good rival always brings the best out of you, and despite recent history, United have a chance to step up to the occasion and make a statement on Saturday at Red Bull Arena (7 PM ET on FS1).
Let’s consider that recent history for a moment, which has been less than ideal for the Black-and-Red. Since 2015, United have gone 1-5-4 against the Red Bulls. In Harrison, New Jersey, United have failed to win a regular-season match since 2011.
To add insult to injury, the hated Red Bulls closed RFK Stadium with a come-from-behind 2-1 win in the final game of the 2017 season and RFK’s final MLS match. The Red Bulls went on to be the only team to earn a win so far in Audi Field’s six-game history.
History has not been on United’s side recently, but at this point, it’s just another chapter that’s ready to be closed.
“They’ve had some stars on their team and you’ve seen it on the field,” United goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “Now I think it’s going to be very equal. I think the way we’re playing right now as a group is bigger than any one individual player, and I think it’s the same for them.”
Though Hamid just recently arrived to the Black-and-Red over the summer transfer window, he knows better than most on the current roster just how heated this rivalry is. It was his red card during the away leg of the 2012 MLS Cup Playoff semifinal that led to the now legendary “They can’t hold us back!” video that has become a rally cry for fans since his return.
But even Hamid knows that history will not play a role on the pitch Saturday night in New Jersey.
“They have a good young squad. They have a lot of energy and there’s a lot of eyes on their players,” Hamid said. “It’s going to be a task for both teams and I think there’s going to be some very good football.”
The recent form for United is probably the only history that matters to the Black-and-Red at the moment as they head to Red Bull Arena looking to extend their three-game winning streak. Since United’s 1-0 defeat to the Red Bulls on July 25 at Audi Field, they have gone unbeaten in five games and jumped from last in the Eastern Conference to seventh, just six points from the playoff line with multiple games in hand on their competition.
United captain Wayne Rooney, who played only 33 minutes in the previous match against the Red Bulls, has since reached full fitness and has kick-started the Black-and-Red attack. The English striker has scored three goals and contributing two assists in the five games since that defeat.
Though Sunday’s match will not be Rooney’s first taste of the Atlantic Cup rivalry, his return to full fitness will provide a potent new dynamic to the match.
“I think you see teams respecting us a bit more,” Rooney told the media after United’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution. “Teams have been hesitant, leaving space for us to get on the ball.”
That extra space has paid dividends for players like Luciano Acosta, who has scored four goals and three assists in his last five appearances, including the dramatic game-winner against Orlando that started the three-game winning streak.
“Obviously we’re enjoying it a lot. Winning is something we want to be consistent in doing,” Acosta said after Sunday’s match. “We need to be confident and keep doing what we’re doing.”
Space may be at a premium against the Red Bulls, though, who’s high press style has been a signature all season and will most certainly be in play at home. The Red Bulls will also be looking to rebound after a frustrating 1-1 draw against a 9-man NYCFC in the Hudson River Derby last Wednesday that Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips equated to a full on loss.
“It’s never easy going to New York,” United head coach Ben Olsen said. “We’ll have no excuse. Three tough games in the next 10 days that everybody is going to have to play a part in to push mentally and physically to keep this thing going.”
So while history has made the Atlantic Cup the most heated rivalry in MLS history, the Black-and-Red will have to push it aside to write some new history as they continue their push for the playoffs.