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Union-Red Bulls Rivalry Is Great, But You Can Have too Much of a Good Thing

Mar 30, 2013, 1:04 PM EDT

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More than any other sport, rivalries are what define soccer.

From the very beginning – even before the team played its first game in 2010 – the Union have had no bigger rival than the New York Red Bulls, even if the cornerstone MLS franchise thinks it has bigger fish to fry than a fourth-year club.

Sadly, Major League Soccer is trying its best to reduce the power of some of its greatest rivalries. How?

By having the teams play more often.

Bear with me here. In the Union’s first two seasons, all MLS teams played a straight home-and-home schedule. Everyone in the league, once home and once away.

The two games against New York in 2010 and 2011 were massive occasions. The matches at PPL Park had a tension and edge that has not been present since, and the away games at Red Bull Arena were events not to be missed. The 2011 game in Harrison, N.J., with playoff seeding and positioning on the line, was one of my favorite sporting events I’ve ever attended in person.

The Sons of Ben filled multiple sections in the upper deck at RBA (the only sold-out sections in the entire stadium), and begrudgingly filed onto busses for the ride home after a 1-0 New York win.

It was an event not be missed.

But as the league has expanded in recent years, MLS has abandoned the round-robin schedule in favor of an unbalanced slate that limits trips out west and increases the frequency of conference rivalries.

The Union will play New York three times this season, beginning today on national television at Red Bull Arena (3:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network). In most cases, fans would argue for more rivalry games, not less. Hell, the NHL has gone solely to conference games during this lockout-shortened season.

But something is lost today by knowing that the Union will return to Harrison in August. It doesn’t feel like the same event it once was. The annual Eagles-Cowboys game at the Linc is one to circle on your calendar. If there were a second one or a third one, things just wouldn’t feel the same.

With additional expansion planned, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll ever return to a straight-up round robin in MLS. And that is a shame.

Today’s Game
New York Red Bulls (0-2-2, 2 points) vs. Philadelphia Union (2-1-0, 6 points)
3:30 p.m., Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J. — TV: NBC Sports Network

Today’s Opponent, in Haiku Form
Wins? Red Bulls have none,
Henry is likely to sit.
Seats still won’t be filled.

Real Facts About Today’s Opponent
The Red Bulls – yet again – have been disappointing out of the gate. They have no wins in four games, including a crushing loss in San Jose in which they led in the final minutes, only to lose, 2-1, thanks to the stupidity of Roy Miller.

Thierry Henry and new signing Fabian Espindola are likely out today due to injury, while Australian star Tim Cahill also is a question mark due to a long flight back from international duty.

New head coach Mike Petke is trying to right the ship in New York (or New Jersey), but a Union win (or even a draw) today in Harrison could send New York fans searching for that panic button.

They should know where it is by now.

A Real Fact About Today’s Opposing City (thanks, Wikipedia!)
Harrison, N.J. is a suburb of Newark, not New York City. Newark’s Branch Brook Park is the oldest county park in the country, and – much to the dismay of those in Washington D.C. – is home to the nation’s largest collection of cherry blossom trees (4,300).

The Player Most Likely to Doop
I’m still hopeful of some day getting to see Conor Casey on the field for the Union. John Hackworth said this week that Casey was finally 100 percent healthy. So I’m going to go out on that limb.

I’m sure that means Casey will never leave the bench.

Prediction Sure to be Way Off
The Union win over New England was the first time I predicted the right result this season (even if not the right score). So things are looking up. I think the Union really get it together today and turn New York’s early-season woes into a real cause for concern in Red Bull-land.

Union 2, Red Bulls 1