Friday November 21st, 2014

If the storied civic and sporting rivalry between Boston and New York City still hasn’t reached the pitch, perhaps it’s because the MLS teams representing those regions have more in common than not.

Neither the New York Red Bulls nor the New England Revolution, two of nine MLS originals still in business, has won an MLS championship. In fact, both may be best known beyond their respective markets for a string of excruciating playoff failures. (Whether New England’s four MLS Cup final defeats are worse than New York’s spate of quarterfinal slip-ups can be debated.)

Back home, while local teams in other major leagues set trends and win titles, two frustrated fan bases have waited for the Red Bulls and Revs to reach their potential. Both exist on the fringes of cosmopolitan and competitive cities. They spent years in cavernous NFL stadiums (the Red Bulls escaped in 2010) and rarely are regarded as ownership’s top priority.

When supporters at Red Bull Arena held aloft a banner reading “New York Stands With Boston” following last year’s marathon bombing, it underlined the connection between the clubs. There are several common threads.

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On Sunday afternoon in Harrison, N.J., the Red Bulls (15-11-11) and Revolution (19-13-4) will kick off a two-game Eastern Conference final series that may spark a dormant rivalry. It also will highlight those common threads. Both teams are coached by confident and quotable 38-year-old former defenders who appeared to be compromise choices when given their first head coaching jobs. But both Jay Heaps (the New England coach who hails from New Hampshire) and Mike Petke (the New York coach who hails from Long Island) have exceeded expectations. The Revs are playing for a conference title for the first time in seven years. New York is a step from the final for the first time in six. Both teams have been dominant at home. The Red Bulls’ June win at Gillette Stadium was its first in Foxborough in a dozen years. The Revolution have never won at Red Bull Arena.

Their tactics, as Petke noted during a Thursday conference call, are similar. Both teams play with a pair of robust holding midfielders. The Red Bulls deploy Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander in front of their back four while New England relies on Jermaine Jones, who’s more of a box-to-box presence like McCarty, and Scott Caldwell. Both rely on a “creative guy in front of those two,” Petke said – New York’s Peguy Luyindula and New England’s Lee Nguyen – and both play with a single striker. Bradley Wright-Phillips tied the MLS regular season record with 27 goals this year (he’s added another three in the playoffs) while Charlie Davies is enjoying a career renaissance in New England. He has five goals this year, including two in the postseason. Former MLS Defender of the Year Jámison Olave anchors New York’s back four. Former MLS Defender of the Year José Gonçalves anchors New England’s.

Both teams are on a roll. The Revs are 11-1-2 since mid-August. NYRB is 7-3-1 since the start of September. Two weeks ago, Petke’s team ousted top-seed D.C. United from the playoffs for the first time.

“This team has reversed this club’s fortunes on a number of occasions over two years,” Petke said after the quarterfinal clincher at RFK Stadium. “The Supporters Shield [in 2013], little things like going to New England and winning for the first time in 12 years, now beating D.C. for the first time in history.”

The stakes and storylines are part of the attraction. Another is the fact that these two teams have stars befitting their cities. In the last year of his contract, Henry finally has taken the Red Bulls deep into the playoffs. His 10 goals and 18 assists tell only part of the story. Wright-Phillips’ output, and the fact that the Englishman isn’t one of three MLS MVP finalists, might tell the rest.

“Thierry is the best player this league has ever seen,” Petke said after the French legend set up all three goals in New York’s 3-2 aggregate defeat of D.C. “Even right now, when he’s at his best and he’s up for it, he’s the best player.”

Henry, in turn, had nothing but praise for Jones. The German-born U.S. midfielder joined the Revs in August under unique circumstances. Competing bids by New England and the Chicago Fire led to an MLS lottery that sent Jones to Foxborough. The club had never before employed a high-priced, high-profile designated player. As the Red Bulls know well, some work out and some don’t. Jones, whose performance in Brazil ended any doubt about his ability to blend seamlessly with teammates, is 8-0-1 as an MLS starter.

“No disrespect to anyone who played there before, but since Jermaine Jones arrived, it changed the team period,” Henry said Thursday in response to a question from “He allowed everybody else to go forward a bit more. He’s the guy who’s going to try to stop the play. He’s going to be the guy that wants the ball. He’s the guy that will get into it and therefore encourages them to be better. When you play with a guy like Jermaine Jones, he allows you to go forward a bit more and since he arrived, they became a better team.”

From late May through late July, New England lost eight league games in a row.

Henry has endured rough patches in New York and it may be no coincidence that fortunes have improved since Mexican defender and Red Bull ringmaster Rafa Márquez left following the 2012 season. Big-money players must perform on the field and they must fit in the locker room. Both New York and New England are thriving because their best players make their teammates better.

“It’s not that way, to just come and change a team just because you have experience and played in Europe. It doesn’t work that way. But he works for them,” Henry said of Jones.

“With Jermaine, first and foremost, from his arrival on Day 1 he was part of the locker room. He’s a guy’s guy. He likes being part of that group … Right away guys are gravitating toward him,” Heaps said.

“He’s versatile. He can attack. He can defend and close games out and he’s also, for me, one of the most fantastic things about him is his technical ability. He has excellent feet and can spray the ball and unlock defenses with a number of different penetrating balls. That experience packaged with his every day locker room mentality and his competitiveness on a daily basis really come together and we’ve really rallied around him."

Jones vs. Henry. Petke vs. Heaps. Olave vs. Gonçalves. Wright-Phillips vs. Davies. The Fort vs. the South Ward. The Eastern finals feature common cultures and compelling story lines. For one club, the story will continue at MLS Cup.

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