About a dozen years ago, a high school soccer player from Southern California traveled across the country and paid a visit to Seton Hall University, where sophomore Jason Hernandez was assigned to host the potential recruit and his father.
“I actually pawned them off on a freshman. I didn’t have time for that,” Hernandez said with a laugh. “We didn’t really pay much attention to the recruits. We let the freshmen handle it.”
That likely was the last time there was any disconnect between Hernandez, a New York City native who was raised in nearby Bergen County, N.J., and the recruit, Sacha Kljestan, who must have wound up with a hospitable freshman because he still chose Seton Hall. Kljestan and Hernandez roomed together in South Orange and then again on Kljestan’s turf near Los Angeles, where both played for Chivas USA in 2006-07.
They remained tight when Kljestan transferred to Belgium’s Anderlecht. Hernandez was a groomsman at Kljestan’s 2012 wedding. Kljestan returned the favor when Hernandez got married last year.
“It would be almost like playing against my brother,” Kljestan, now in his first season with the New York Red Bulls, said when asked about the possibility of going up against Hernandez. “You love them so much, but you never, ever want to lose to them.”
Assuming Hernandez, a defender for New York City FC, has worked through the calf injury that’s sidelined him since mid April—he’s trained fully this week and said, “I would say there’s nothing under the sun that I wouldn’t have done to be available,”—the old friends will meet as adversaries Sunday on evening at Red Bull Arena (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1). There, before what is expected to be a sell-out crowd, NYCFC (1-5-3) and the Red Bulls (3-1-4) will write what many hope will be the first of many chapters in American pro soccer’s first long-term, intra-market rivalry.
The local derby is nothing new in the New York area, of course. Two NFL, three NHL, two MLB and two NBA teams vie for attention and allegiance. Fans and families are accustomed to choosing sides.
“I was a Yankees and a New York Giants fan and I had plenty of family members, plenty of old friends, who were on the other side of the tracks,” Hernandez said. “You kind of picked your side and you stuck with it. You didn’t see many people flip-flopping.”
The derby also represents a huge part of soccer culture around the world. The sport, at its heart, is local. It’s about a club’s ties to its community. And nothing stokes the the fire of fandom like interacting with opposing supporters every day, spotting your rival’s logo on car bumpers or shop windows and seeing both teams covered, criticized or celebrated by the local press. Every soccer game is worth three points. But not all come with bragging rights.
MLS knew this from its foundation, but rivalry doesn’t come easy in countries so large. The Red Bulls and D.C. United certainly created one rather quickly. But the day-to-day jostling that fuels the sport’s best rivalries, not to mention the presence of a large number of away fans on game day, couldn't happen when the teams are 220 miles apart. And in the U.S. or Canada, that's close.
The Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, currently the league’s best rivalry, play about 175 miles apart. There’s nearly four decades of history and some genuine hostility between the two, but they’re competing for points and trophies, not neighborhoods, ticket sales and column inches. The same goes for the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes or the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake. It’s regional. It’s different.
Both Kljestan and Hernandez played in MLS’ first intra-market rivalry, the ill-fated SuperClasico between the Galaxy and Chivas USA. The two teams shared a stadium and, for some, represented clear points of division. The Galaxy were the established, star-studded club while upstart Chivas, launched in 2005, endeavored to appeal to the area’s Spanish speakers.
But proximity can do only so much. Eventually, results matter. Chivas USA was competitive at first, making the playoffs from 2006 through ’09, but it managed to win just four of the 34 matches between the clubs. Two of those victories, each by 3-0 scores, came during a dizzying three-week spell in the summer of ’07, when both Kljestan and Hernandez were on the team. Back then, it appeared the the SuperClasico eventually might live up to it name.
“There were definitely ups and downs in those games and obviously a lot of big moments, but every time we played them, whether we were in first place or last, it felt like a big game. You never want to lose to your rival,” Kljestan said. “You were kind of friendly [with the Galaxy players] all season long, except for maybe those three weeks that led up to the game and then it was like, you saw them in the weight room that week and you didn’t even talk to them. That would go on maybe for a week or two after the game. The rest of the time, we’d coexist really well.”
Hernandez said there was a common thread connecting Chivas USA, which folded last year, and his new club, which played its first game two months ago.
“We were an expansion team,” he said. “We didn’t really have much respect at the time as far as being a quality and valued opponent. When I was with Chivas, it was more personal. We’re going out here to fight for respect and show we’re a good squad and we’re not just the city’s little stepchild. We had a right to be there and compete and those battles were really good and really fun.”
The Chivas USA concept proved unsustainable, and NYCFC might empathize with some of Chivas’ struggles. Despite a strong start at the gate—NYCFC ranks third in MLS attendance at more than 27,000 fans per game—there’s some uncertainty. From its status as Yankee Stadium tenant to the concerns about a subservient relationship to Manchester City, the crown jewel in City Football Group’s crown, NYCFC’s claim to be the five boroughs’ authentic soccer representative are more fighting words than fact, at least for now.
There are on-field issues as well. Superstar striker David Villa has been battling injury, Frank Lampard is arriving mid-season and an 0-5-2 slide left head coach Jason Kreis wondering, “Maybe I forgot how very hard it is to build a team in this league,” after last weekend’s loss to Seattle.
The Red Bulls, despite a 19-year head start, hardly own New York either.
The Hudson River represents a barrier for some, the Cosmos are making noise out on Long Island and season after season of upheaval, from coaching changes to early playoff exits to the controversial 2006 rebrand, haven’t made the lives of Red Bulls fans any easier. Roots require stability and in New York, trophies.
Prospects are a bit brighter this season as new sporting director Ali Curtis and coach Jesse Marsch have promised to lay a more permanent foundation, but there’s still a lot of work to do. And third-place New York is 0-1-2 in its past three games.
For now, apart from the diehards who’ve already declared their allegiance, the Hudson River Derby (or whatever it winds up being called) has yet to take shape. Whatever history there is at this point is anchored by the relationships forged in American soccer’s “small fraternity,” as Hernandez put it. The animosity is absent. There’s no defeat to avenge, no slight to put right and no tangible stakes beyond the three points. And both clubs have plenty to focus on internally.
So the tone, at the start, will be set by fans. NYCFC’s supporters club, The Third Rail, will number some 1,500 members to RBA. There surely will be more light blue scattered among the red and white in Harrison, N.J. There’s been plenty of back and forth on Twitter and for those who have chosen sides, Sunday represents the opportunity to establish a bit of history and momentum. That, in turn, will fuel the players on the pitch.
“I feel it from these fans already. We had an event at the Adidas store [on Tuesday] night and were meeting them, taking some pictures, and hearing, ‘You gotta win on Sunday.’ You feel that from the fans and how much that game means to them,” Kljestan said. “Let’s be honest—if there’s a new team coming into the city you don’t want to lose the first game against them and give them the bragging rights for the next couple of months. I understand where they’re coming from.”
So does Hernandez.
“If it was an empty stadium, you wouldn’t see two teams flying at each other, fighting for every inch. But the Red Bulls are going to have a lot of supporters to drive them on, and we’re going to have a lot to drive us on, and the environment it creates will bring some energy to the match,” he said.
Kljestan said that one of his most prominent SuperClasico memories was how good Landon Donovan was in those matches.
“Almost every time they won, it was because of him. Those games brought out the best in him, almost like USA-Mexico brought out the best in him. I hope, personally, that this game brings out the best in me.”
When players are at there best, memories are made. And no one likes to lose to their brother.
“For the match on Sunday, there is no history,” Hernandez said. “We’re kind of writing history as we go. We’ll see how it goes.”