United-Red Bulls rivalry ready for next chapter

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If years of disparate records had taken any of the fire out of D.C. United’s Atlantic Cup feud with the New York Red Bulls, last fall’s chaotic playoff series sure heated it up again.

Superstorm Sandy caused the clubs to swap home playoff dates. The first match saw the teams trade own goals. The second leg was postponed as a nor’easter hit Red Bull Arena. And when that decisive contest finally was played, it included two red cards, a nullified penalty kick goal for New York and a last-gasp winner from United rookie Nick DeLeon.

“That was unforgettable,” DeLeon said. “That is something I will remember for the rest of my life. It was definitely an experience.”

On Saturday, the teams will face each other for the first time since that Eastern Conference semifinal when the Red Bulls (0-1-1) host United (1-1-0) as part of MLS Rivalry Week.

While D.C.’s roster has remained largely the same, New York during the offseason named former United defender Mike Petke coach while adding hulking center back Jamison Olave, dynamic forward Fabian Espindola and veteran Brazilian playmaker Juninho.

“It’s a little bit early to be too dramatic about the rivalry, but it’s still New York,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s their home opener, and they’re going to have a lot of energy to start this game, so we have to be ready for that.

“We have to deal with it, but we also have to play soccer and continue to work on our possession and holding the ball and making sure we’re working the other team on the defensive end.”

The Red Bulls have had an up-and-down start to 2013, taking two leads on the road before settling for a draw against Portland and a late loss to San Jose. In just two games, a retooled defense has already allowed five goals.

“They’re still very much a dangerous team,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “I know they’ve given up two leads and people are talking about them like they’re not in a good place, but I don’t even think like that. I think we’re going to get the best New York team we could possibly get.”

United will be boosted by the long-awaited return of captain Dwayne De Rosario. The All-Star playmaker missed the stretch run of 2012 with a sprained knee ligament, then was suspended for the first two matches this season after head-butting an opponent during a preseason game.

Without De Rosario, United’s attack has largely lacked drive and imagination, finding the net just once so far this season.

“Obviously, we’ve missed him these past two games,” said defender Dejan Jakovic, who also plays with De Rosario on the Canada national team. “He looks good, and I think he’s excited to step on the field and kind of guide us. We feel like we maybe offensively have been struggling a little it, and I definitely think he’s the key to get us going and create some chances.”

So Olsen is excited to get De Rosario back in the mix, right?

“You think I’m going to start De Ro?” Olsen wryly joked about the 2011 MLS MVP. “Missing two games, I’m going to start him? We’ll see if he makes the [bench.]”

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