New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson punches the ball...

New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson punches the ball away from goal while Red Bulls defender Aaron Long tries to attack during the second half of an MLS match, Sunday, July 14, 2019, in Harrison, N.J. Credit: AP/Steve Luciano

In the first five years of the Hudson River Derby, NYCFC and the Red Bulls played to crowds of varying size.

More than 48,000 filled Yankee Stadium for City’s first time hosting the series in 2015, and while Red Bull Arena typically is near capacity for Derby matches, less than 10,000 ventured to Harrison, New Jersey, for a U.S. Open Cup contest between the sides in 2018.

But like so many major sporting events during the pandemic, this edition of the Derby will have zero fans in attendance providing energy for what normally is one of the clubs’ most intense matches of the year.

“This is new for all of us,” Red Bulls captain Sean Davis said. “I think throughout the year we’ve been able to appreciate how important the fans are. That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate them before, but especially for these Derby matches they’re such a big part of creating such a fun atmosphere.”

The Red Bulls invite NYCFC across the river Thursday at 7 p.m. in the clubs’ first match of Major League Soccer’s return to home markets. The league held the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida from June to August, and aside from two teams dropping out upon arrival because of coronavirus outbreaks, it was largely successful, allowing each club to play at least three regular-season games inside the bubble.

For the six-game opening phase of the league’s full restart, MLS is permitting clubs to allow fans based on local regulations. The Red Bulls will keep doors closed because of health concerns.

“Unfortunately they won’t be able to be in Red Bull Arena, but saying that, we know how important this is for each of the fanbases,” Davis said. “Any time we step on the field, whether that’s at Red Bull Arena or Yankee Stadium, there’s a lot on the line.”

Red Bulls supporters cheer on their team late in the...

Red Bulls supporters cheer on their team late in the game in their win over the New York City FC at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey on Sunday, July 24, 2016. Credit: Steven Ryan

NYCFC mostly has struggled as the road team in New Jersey, winning just once in seven league matches at the Red Bulls. City defender Maxime Chanot prefers playing in front of crowds but believes the neutral atmosphere on this trip may help his side.

“In our situation, it’s going to be easier because we should play away at Red Bull Arena, and it’s always tough to play this as an away team,” Chanot said. “So, I think it’s going to help us to play without fans, for sure. From my point of view, it’s a tough situation to play without fans, especially our fans who pushed us so hard in the beginning of the season and since the creation of this football club. I wish we could have the fans back at the Stadium, but I think more important than football today is health, and I think it was a good decision at this moment to maybe avoid the fans to come in and get contaminated.”

Red Bulls coach Chris Armas appreciates what fans bring to a rivalry, but the team’s experience in the bubble convinced him the competition will be as intense as ever.

“The games had a lot of bite, a lot of energy in the bubble. You’re sitting there watching, you can hear all the sounds on the field, you hear coaches coaching. That’s a little bit different, you’d rather hear the fans roaring,” Armas said. “But it didn’t change the fact that there’s tackles and there’s duals and a real competitive spirit to the game. I know that’s a tournament setup, but there’s a lot on the line in a shortened season, every three points matters, and home games matter even more to us, Derby matches maybe even more. So I think you can expect high energy, a real competitive game despite the fact our supporters aren’t there yet.”

NYCFC also will play its home matches at Red Bull Arena for now with Yankee Stadium unavailable. City used the arena to host a pair of CONCACAF Champions League matches earlier this year, giving the club an extra sense of familiarity with the ground they’ll call home for at least the next three weeks.

“It's never going to be our home pitch, that's for sure,” said NYCFC first-year coach Ronny Deila, who has yet to see his team play at Yankee Stadium. “But at the same time, it is very good that we have played there. We know the arena very good, we played two really good games there.

“We have to do everything we can to make it as home as possible."

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