In this edition of Oppo Research, Hudson River Blue spoke with journalist and lifelong Red Bulls fan Michael Battista (who also covers the Tri-State Soccer Scene for us) to learn more about the best MLS team ever to call New Jersey home, New York City FC’s opponent in the Hudson River Derby tomorrow at Yankee Soccer Stadium: The oppo is coming from inside the building!
Here is your NYCFC vs Red Bulls preview.
1. Fan morale is low (selling Messi shirts at Red Bull Arena didn’t help)
Hudson River Blue: The New York Red Bulls currently sit in 13th in the Eastern Conference, four points off a playoff spot. The Red Bulls lost their last three MLS games and struggled offensively. What’s the feeling on that side of the Hudson River these days?
Michael Battista: At this point, many fans have given up on making the playoffs for a 14th straight season. The offensive issues have hit a new low. The best way to sum it up is that Dante Vanzeir is tied for the most goals across all competitions with just five. He missed a month due to a case of accidental racism, and only has a pair of regular-season goals, but he’s tied him with Omir Fernandez for the top.
Also, Tom Barlow keeps starting games. Lewis Morgan was officially shut down last week for the rest of the season after having hip surgery. The defense isn’t much better. John Tolkin (or, as he prefers it, JMi) is still great, but Andrés Reyes and Sean Nealis have come down after starting the season incredibly hot.
Former OaM writer and current Last Word on Sports contributor Sylvana Budesheim has a great tweet on this (we’re both theater nerds):
The Inter Miami CF game, when Lionel Messi shirts were sold in Harrison, felt like a turning point. Fan morale is low, and they don’t think things are going to get better in the short term with this ownership.
2. Zach Prince will be acting head coach
HRB: The Red Bulls will be without head coach Troy Lessene after yellow card accumulation and Sean Nelis after being sent off against the Philadelphia Union. How will this affect the team on Saturday?
MB: The New York Red Bulls have already had a gap in leadership this season. Losing both Troy Lesesne and Sean Nealis is not going to help that. That being said, Zach Prince will be head coach on Saturday. He’s been Lesesne’s right-hand man for most of his career as both a player and coach. Prince previously coached New Mexico United in the USL Championship, the same side Lesesne led prior to COVID. So tactically, it shouldn’t make too much of a difference. Nealis being gone probably means either Matt Nocita or, more likely, Hassam Ndam will need to fill in for him. The latter has done pretty well since rejoining the RB fold.
3. Carlos Coronel and Frankie Amaya are ones to watch
HRB: Omir Fernandez has scored four goals and dished out three assists so far this season. Fernandez also scored the winning goal in both derby games earlier this season. Who else should NYCFC look out for on Saturday?
MB: The easy answer is Omir but I’ll avoid the Bronx Messi to change it up. The two players to watch are Carlos Coronel and Frankie Amaya.
Coronel is coming off his first international caps for Paraguay after becoming a naturalized citizen in July. He was between the posts for Los Guaraníes in two 2026 World Cup Qualifiers. He got the team its first point in a scoreless draw against Peru before dropping a 1-0 loss to Venezuela after a stoppage-time penalty kick. While Coronel’s 2023 has been lesser than 2022 he’s still a huge presence.
As for Amaya, he leads RBNY with four regular-season goals. The million-dollar man from Cincinnati scored those four during a five-game stretch from late June to mid-July. While he’s cooled, I think Amaya could be ready to pop off late with at least two more goals this season.
4. The X-factor: Defensive solidity
HRB: What’s the X-factor that could decide this game?
MB: Which defense cracks first.
As I mentioned earlier, the center-back role is going to be interesting to watch on Saturday. Plus JMi and Cameron Harper need to look good on the wings. The question is which type of play we see from them.
Will JMi be the full-field threat with Harper playing back, or vice versa? The latter has been making great passes in the midfield but his crossing game is no Lewis Morgan. Likewise, NYCFC have let up 36 so far this season (tied for 13th most). NYC has allowed one or fewer goals in their last two games and RBNY struggle to score more than one goal a game.
5. Predicted Red Bulls Starting XI
HRB: Prediction time: Starting XI? Final score?
MB: Saturday’s game is important. It’ll decide the first official winner of the Hudson River Derby trophy. But, more importantly, I think whoever wins will qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs as a “Play-In” team by the season’s end. If it ends in a draw, probably neither will make the cut.
Last time around I picked NYCFC to win, 2-1. They lost that game 1-0 and eventually lost in the Leagues Cup by the same score. It is incredibly difficult to beat a team three times in one season. I’m going with NYC, 2-1, once again. Either I’m right or I’m pleasantly surprised.
Plus if I keep picking NYCFC and they keep losing my double agent-status will be solidified.