As first-place United head to New York, they hold a three-point lead on the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings. The players are well aware of the importance of this game and what it could mean right before the All-Star break in July.
“It’s a big [game] against New York. We stepped on the gas early against them last time we played and didn’t let up,” said forward and assistant coach Josh Wolff. United won the teams’ first meeting this season, 4-1 on April 22.
Not only would a win against New York preserve United’s spot atop the Eastern Conference, it would also clinch the Atlantic Cup. The Atlantic Cup is awarded to whichever team (United or Red Bulls) wins the season-long series. New York has come away with the past two Cups, ending United’s streak of six straight from 2004-09.
The rivalry between D.C. and the New York stretches back to the inaugural MLS season in 1996. Although New York has undergone name changes (New York/New Jersey MetroStars from 1996-2005 and the Red Bulls from 2006 on) the rivalry has remained fierce.
“It’s great [rivalry games] … I think we’d be excited about the three points,” said United coach Ben Olsen. “I respect the Atlantic Cup but that’s not the focus.”
There are greater implications, for sure, as United have a chance to head into the July 25 All-Star game atop the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2007.
One player to keep an eye on Sunday is Dwayne De Rosario.
United acquired him from the Red Bulls midway through last season for Dax McCarty and he went on to score 13 goals in 18 matches on his way to winning his first MLS MVP award and MLS Golden Boot (for most goals scored).
De Rosario has 98 career goals, putting him seventh all-time in MLS scoring and second among active players (Landon Donovan is first with 119 goals). Only six players have ever achieved the 100-goal mark in MLS — United great Jaime Moreno is one — and De Rosario could become the seventh Sunday.
“If I scored it would mean the same as if I scored against anyone else,” said De Rosario. “If I get those goals against anybody, for me I think it would be a huge accomplishment.”
MLS asked New York if it would stop the game and commemorate the accomplishment if De Rosario were to score his 99th and 100th goals on Sunday. New York denied the request.
De Rosario knows the game result is more important for the team than him hitting 100 goals.
“If we can get three points in New York, it would be a huge motivator and morale booster for us,” he said. “We’re approaching the second part of the season and we really have to stay focused, stay disciplined and stay united.”
If United keeps up its winning ways, fond memories of United lifting the MLS Cup trophy in 2004 could return.