New York’s Hudson River Derby: You don’t need history to have hatred

It happened in a flash. The banging of drums was cut, replaced by the sound of jacked-up testosterone. We could have been extras in Green Street or The Football Factory as we stood and observed the scenes in front of us.

The New York Red Bulls fans had just arrived outside Yankee Stadium and their New York City FC counterparts were welcoming them with open arms. Those arms weren’t warm and cuddly. No, they were windmilling, full of machismo and a sizeable chunk of hatred. The inevitable dance routines would follow as fans charged each other before retreating back, using bottles of water and, rather aptly given the opposition, unopened cans of energy drinks for missiles.

As Major League Soccer continues to grow, America is in the process adopting the English version of football; it seems a by-product of that has meant the old “English disease” of hooliganism isn’t too far behind.

NYCFC are only in their second season of competing at this level, but already we’re seeing signs of growing tension at the Hudson River Derby. There are two MLS clubs in New York now and, on this evidence, it’s clear they don’t like each other.

The Set Pieces was in town as we wanted to explore just how real this rivalry is. After all, it’s one that has been created in the boardroom and not on the pitch. Unlike the Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers derbies that pre-date MLS, a rivalry is New York is a construct of men in suits.

It is unique, though. Just 20 miles separate the teams, making them the closest opponents in all of MLS. That means more fans can travel and, when that happens, we get scenes like those we witnessed.

By accepting NYCFC as one of the latest franchises to the league in 2014 – they started playing a year later – MLS has dumped this rivalry on fans. We can’t talk about history simply because there isn’t any. That said, both clubs have been busy trying to create some.

When they met for the first time at Red Bull Arena last season, the abiding image of the game was of men scrapping with sandwich boards on the streets of Harrison, New Jersey. And now this weekend’s escapades have added to the feeling of animosity between both sets of supporters.

The clashes outside Yankee Stadium weren’t quite in the realms of a full-blown riot, but it had been building for a long while. Before the Red Bulls arrived, River Avenue was already awash with NYCFC supporters burning opposition flags, spitting on them before cheering as passing cars drove over them. The set list was complete with songs attempting to belittle their rivals; songs about how Red Bulls fans can go only go potty when they’re sitting down.

We shouldn’t judge a rivalry by its so-called hooligan element, though. That’s a culture more representative of morons than it is your average football fan. Rivalries can and do exist without violence. It doesn’t take a punch to define them.

This match-up may only be in its second season, but what defines the contention between both sets of supporters in the New York derby is the most traditional reasoning we find in sport: geography. There’s nothing better at breeding contempt than competing with a neighbour.

Before New York Red Bulls were putting seven goals without reply past NYCFC at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, we met up with two different supporters groups. In the red corner there is the Viking Army, while wearing the sky blue of NYCFC it’s The Third Rail. Time and again it’s the issue of geography that creeps into conversation. No matter where the topic leads, it’s where we always end up.

“They’re not even in New York,” Ben Glidden of The Third Rail tells us, stood outside The Dugout bar where in a few minutes all hell is set to break loose. He then pulls out a map on his phone to highlight the point. Low and behold, we can see what we’ve long known, which is that Red Bull Arena is actually on the other side of the Hudson River and resides in New Jersey.

“But we’re part of the New York metropolitan area,” is Mike Warchol of Viking Army’s comeback. “And besides, the Giants and Jets both play in New Jersey and they’ve always had the New York name. We’re part of New York.” Warchol makes a valid case for it, referencing a map of his own that shows our meeting spot on Manhattan’s 33rd Street is just as close to Yankee Stadium as it is Red Bull Arena. His point is that it may as well be in New York.

Indeed, the place where Mike and I have met is as New York as it gets. We’re in Legends bar, an Irish pub that sits at the foot of the Empire State Building – the city’s biggest tourist attraction and a symbol of everything the Empire State represents.

As for Legends, it’s known for showing every football match going. While we’re speaking, Hibernian are busy defeating Rangers in the Scottish Cup final on the big screen and cheers can be heard from groups of Hibs fans that are dotted around.

It’s a known Red Bulls meeting point even when they’re not playing their rivals and, along with Warchol, there is a healthy number of the Viking Army sinking pints before they head uptown for the game.

A lot of the Viking Army members we speak to are New York natives, too. Kate Sweeny travels to games from Long Beach, where she grew up. Others come from all over the five boroughs that complete New York. The Red Bulls may not be based within the city limits, but the soul of the club certainly feels like it is.

As a founding member of MLS back in 1996, Red Bulls fans have an axe of their own to grind with NYCFC fans. As well as taking umbrage at the suggestion they’re not New Yorkers, the Red Bulls see NYCFC followers as, well, glory hunters. “There’s long been two teams in New York,” Warchol says. “They’re us and the Cosmos. Why didn’t NYCFC fans support any of them before their team was created two years ago?”

The ill feeling continues: “They don’t even have a stadium. They’re playing at Yankee Stadium, which is an institution in American sports. The fact they play there is making a mockery of team that has won the World Series 27 times.”

They’re harsh words and when we put them to Glidden of The Third Rail he pauses for a moment before smirking. “All this coming from a team that used to play in an American football stadium themselves,” he retorts. “And they haven’t even won an MLS Cup in their 20 years. So what if they are a founding member of the league.”

It’s these debates that show the Hudson River Derby for what it is; it’s something very real, regardless of its infancy. Change those fans for Chelsea and Liverpool, and the arguments aren’t too dissimilar, with an apparent lack of history commonly thrown in the face of Blues supporters despite all their recent success.

NYCFC versus New York Red Bulls is being driven by mutual resentment and they’re only too eager to push each other’s buttons as football fans are wont to do. They’re looking for the weak spot and prodding it to get a reaction.

Inside the stadium, it seems the players are getting the message, too. The atmosphere wasn’t exactly partisan – mainly because a baseball stadium doesn’t offer the same intimacy as a tight football ground – yet it mattered little for both sets of players who were willing to stick the boot in. Andrea Pirlo was clattered in the first half before a Tommy McNamara challenge on Dax McCarty a short while later ensured we saw the same handbags on the pitch as on River Avenue earlier.

They were derby day tackles, coming with a little more menace than you would expect had it been another side visiting Yankee Stadium. “It’s a big game, the fans really get into it,” McNamara told us in the locker room after. “There’s a lot of pride at stake in the game and that creates a good atmosphere. I don’t know [if got heated between the players, though].”

Judging by his performance, the midfielder is being diplomatic for the first time all afternoon. The tackles we saw and the posturing that followed; it was clear the players got caught up in the excitement of it all.

The emphatic 7-0 scoreline in favour of the Red Bulls has just added to things now. Fighting in the streets, big wins in your rival’s backyard – it all adds to the sense of anticipation for when these sides meet again on July 3rd. As luck would have it, that’s Independence Day weekend, so there should be fireworks.

You can follow Garry Hayes on Twitter.

New York’s Hudson River Derby: You don’t need history to have hatred
4.7 (93.85%) 26 votes