Sean Davis knows the secret to a good rivalry. Hint: It has nothing to do with marketing.
“The truth of the matter is it has to grow organically and I think that’s what it has done over the years,” the New York Red Bulls midfielder said of the Hudson River Derby with New York City FC. “I think naturally it’s grown year on year.”
Right alongside the growth of the derby, which will have its 14th chapter unfold Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, has been Davis’ maturation as a player.
The 25-year-old has gone from a rookie seeing seldom playing time in the infancy of the rivalry to now, being a pivotal part of the Red Bulls midfield in what will be the most important derby showdown to date.
Signed as a Homegrown Player on Dec. 11, 2014, Davis is now among the Red Bulls’ leaders and wearing the captain’s armband in a 4-0 victory over NYCFC in the U.S. Open Cup in June was his personal high-water mark of the derby.
When Davis came into the league in 2015, there were different faces in the first year of the rivalry. The Red Bulls were led by veterans Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan in the midfield, along with Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
New York City FC had David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo as their Mount Rushmore for their first season.
And while everything was new for the expansion side, there was also a lot of changes for the MLS original across the river.
Gone were Thierry Henry, the global icon who retired following the 2014 season, and Mike Petke, who was controversially let go a year after guiding the club to their first Supporters’ Shield crown.
There was a new coach in Jesse Marsch and a new philosophy and plenty for the Red Bulls to digest before thinking about NYCFC.
Thankfully for the Red Bulls, the start to the season was a positive one and the day fans from both sides had been waiting had finally arrived. It was May 10, 2015 and Davis knew as soon as he emerged from the tunnel before kickoff that it was different than any of the other matches to that point in his rookie season.
“I just remember it being absolutely packed,” he said. “The stadium was full in a way that I’ve never seen it before. Especially with the coaching change and the loss of Henry, we were in a new era and people were a little skeptical. It was a great environment.”
Davis didn’t step on the field that day, but remembers how special that 2-1 victory was. In part because it was the first derby encounter, but also because the Red Bulls won with just 10 men after Matt Miazga was sent off for his second bookable offense before halftime.
“Winning that game was so important for the club and putting our stamp on the rivalry right away,” Davis said. “It was really exciting and a proud moment for the club because of the adversity we faced in that game and the way we were able to compete, even a man down.”
Davis’ other thought when he left Red Bull Arena that day?
“Man, these are games I really want to be a part of,” he said.
That would be the case in the third meeting that season, a 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena, on August 9, 2015.
Davis came off the substitute’s bench for the final 14 minutes as Kljestan’s replacement.
“I remember having a strong substitute appearance, which isn’t always easy in these games, to come into the game and match the intensity,” he said. “I remember feeling pretty proud of my performance that day. I was so nervous before the match and even when I played, but it was a really exciting feeling to get my first taste of the derby and coming out on top in the game, too.”
A few years later, Davis has again replaced Kljestan, the former captain who was dealt to Orlando City SC in the offseason. Not in terms of his position, but rather as a leader in the midfield.
Before this year, Davis deferred to players like McCarty, Kljestan and Felipe, but with all three on different clubs now, he has emerged as one of the leaders in his second season as a regular starter.
“I think Sean Davis continues to grow; as a soccer player, understanding how to play the No. 6 and what the game needs, and he grows as a leader,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “You can see that he’s the guy, when you scour video after the games, he’s the guy pointing, organizing and controlling things out there. Over the course of these years, he continues to grow in all ways and be a big piece, big player here.”
Davis said he also sees it as his responsibility to try to lead by example in the buildup to a derby match.
“As a veteran of the team in a sense, it’s just trying to have the right intensity throughout the week,” Davis said. “It’s having the right focus, whether it’s in film or on the training field, to really set the tone for the group and let them know what they’re in for.”
Considering both teams chase for the Supporters’ Shield — they are separated by one point just behind leaders Atlanta United — and that this latest match comes in the final third of the regular season, Davis said Wednesday’s game is “going to be more intense than any game we’ve had this season.”
Perhaps no one knows that better than Davis, who has emerged as an integral part of the Red Bulls in what has become arguably the league’s most intense rivalry.