Not that many will need reminding, but the last time that D.C. United made the dreary trip up to Harrison, N.J. to face the New York Red Bulls, things didn't do quite as planned. It was the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals of the 2014 MLS Playoffs, and despite a strong start from the Black and Red, they slumped to a 2-0 loss, which eventually doomed them in the return leg.
Now that the stage has been reset, United head up the I-95 corridor tomorrow to face the Red Bulls on Sunday, in the first installment of the 2015 Atlantic Cup. And with the memories of the previous game still fresh in the minds of the players and coaches, United are on lookout for revenge.
"I remember it. I'm sure the guys remember it," United manager Ben Olsen said Friday. "You always remember those games, the ones that knock you out. I'm sure there will be a little extra motivation, but it's New York-DC."
It was the first time that the Red Bulls, or the MetroStars for that matter, had knocked United out of the playoffs in the first 19 years of MLS play. But while United return most of the same players that featured in last year's defeat, the Red Bulls feature several key differences, which dictate how they'll operate on the field.
Out is the influential Thierry Henry, who was always a menace against United in his four and a half MLS career. Mike Petke also saw the door as NYRB's manager, replaced by former United midfielder Jesse Marsch.
"[Henry] was a great player, and he had three assists on their three goals against us last year in the playoffs," said United defender Steve Birnbaum, who had a front row seat for Henry's performance last year. "But they have brought in a lot of new pieces to have a good team this year."
Those new pieces feature heavily in the midfield, where Henry liked to drop to operate. Dax McCarty is still there, but he is now flanked by Sacha Kljestan, who joined Anderlecht this season, and Felipe, who joined from Montreal (and who United supporters might remember as the guy who injured Fabian Espindola last year).
"Theirry [Henry], we all watched him here for years. He could make a play at any moment, and he was allowed the type of freedom on that team that very few players that in this league have had," Olsen said. They don't have that now, knowing Jesse [Marsch] and what he is about. It will be a very collective group, they will be connected, they will be organized. And they still have very good players all around the field. They have Sacha, Felipe, and Dax, which is as a good of a central midfield as the league has. They got a guy [Bradley Wright-Phillips] who can run the line well and score."
The Red Bulls are coming off their own bye week, giving them just as much prep time for the Atlantic Cup as United. In their only game this season, they came back from behind to net a 1-1 draw against Sporting Kansas City, thanks to a Lloyd Sam goal.
Despite not having much tape on Marsch as a Red Bull manager, United midfielder Perry Kitchen noted that the ability to get three points in Harrison relied on winning the battle in midfield, something that United failed to do last year in the playoffs. Kitchen, with plenty experience against the Red Bulls, knows just what is at stake in this early season matchup.
"They're a very good team. It's a rivalry, and these games are usually intense. It's going to be a great matchup, but we are prepared for them," Kitchen told B&RU. "We need to try our best to counter their three [man midfield], and if we are able to deal with them, we will improve our chances to win for sure."