To Dejan Jakovic, there is a simple explanation for the intensity behind the Atlantic Cup rivalry between his D.C. United side and the New York Red Bulls.
“They have no trophies,” the center back said. “We want to keep it that way. We obviously know that the fans want to keep it that way. There is a lot of history.”
Yes, while United lay claim to 12 major domestic and international titles, including four MLS Cups, the Red Bulls’ trophy case remains empty.
And United have certainly played their part, ousting New York in all three of the teams’ playoff series, going a combined 5-1-1 against the franchise that until 2006 was known as the MetroStars.
New York, with the league’s highest payroll, hopes to end that drought this year. But United can intervene once more when the clubs meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals, kicking off the two-game, total-goals series Saturday. Originally set at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., Game 1 now will be played at RFK Stadium as the New York metropolitan area continues to recover from Hurricane Sandy.
“Initially in the league, it was the closest two teams to each other,” said United coach Ben Olsen, who played for D.C. from 1998 to 2009. “I have always loved this rivalry, and I’m looking forward to the weekend to continue some of the epic games that we’ve had.”
The rivalry was born in the league’s inaugural 1996 campaign, when the squads met in a best-of-three conference semifinal. Although New York won the opener via shootout, United took the second match before claiming Game 3 on an 89th-minute penalty kick drawn by club icon Marco Etcheverry.
“The game ended in pretty dramatic fashion,” United president Kevin Payne recalled. “Certainly we recognized then that this was going to be a real rivalry.”
In 2002, the organizations recognized the feud with the founding of the Atlantic Cup, awarded to the winner of the teams’ season series. It’s a trophy that has typically called RFK Stadium home, with D.C. triumphing eight times in 11 years.
This season, the series played out to a 1-1-1 deadlock, with United taking the cup on the total-goals tiebreaker.
“Our rivalry has probably been hurt a little bit by the fact that there haven’t been too many years when we’ve both been good,” Payne said. “But there’s something about New York. Teams from our part of the world always tend to have real rivalries with teams from New York.”
While United (17-10-7) finished a point ahead of the Red Bulls (16-9-9) to secure the No. 2 seed, the pressure this postseason mostly falls on a third-place New York side with a payroll that triples D.C.’s.
United, after all, still is without reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario (sprained knee ligament). Even though the club has gone 5-0-2 since his mid-September injury, the four-time MLS Cup champion’s absence looms large.
New York, meanwhile, boasts the league’s third-ranked attack, with the prolific forward duo of MVP candidate Thierry Henry (15 goals, 12 assists) and Kenny Cooper (18 goals) supported by playmaker Tim Cahill, a onetime English Premier League standout who arrived midseason from Everton FC.
Considering the teams combined for nearly five goals per meeting this season, the series has the potential to develop into an affair rivaling the entertainment value of that first nip-and-tuck series 16 years ago.