Major League Soccer's youngest and fastest-growing derby takes center stage for the final time during the regular season Sunday at Red Bull Arena as the New York Red Bulls host New York City FC.
It may be difficult to call Sunday's meeting between the two Eastern Conference titans the most important in the rivalry's history given the short span they have been pitted against each other, but three points for either Jesse Marsch's or Patrick Vieira's side could be crucial in building momentum in the playoff race and in the rivalry itself.
As hard as it may be to imagine, especially after their rocky start, NYCFC enter Sunday as the favorite to capture a victory in the final New York derby of the regular season. City carry a three-point advantage over the second-place Philadelphia Union into the weekend, and they have opened up a five-point gap on the Red Bulls.
Vieira and company also come into Red Bull Arena with a road record that could turn into one of the best in the league's 21-year history. City are 6-3-1 on their travels this season with a baffling home mark of 3-3-5 in a league where home field usually is a difference-maker.
Since the Copa America Centenario break, City have earned road victories at Seattle, New England and Montreal as well a vital home win over the Red Bulls to finally gain a foothold in a rivalry that was getting too one-sided to even be labeled with that tag.
NYCFC have five wins in their last six games, and a fully loaded lineup causing all sorts of trouble thanks to the strong play of their three high-profile designated players Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. Lampard, who was cast off as the worst designated player in MLS history just two months ago, is proving his worth in a major way in the middle of the park.
Lampard's success has mirrored that of his team since the resumption of play on June 18. The 38-year-old former Chelsea great has found the back of the net in five of the last six games. In the one match Lampard failed to score, he notched an assist.
Villa hasn't been on the same hot streak as Lampard, but he's been as important to the club's success in 2016. The current Golden Boot leader has scored on 13 occasions over 21 matches. The Spaniard's also been the most active player in front of the net as he leads MLS in shots on goal with 49. Sebastian Giovinco is second to Villa with 36.
With cracks apparent in the Red Bulls back line as recent as Sunday's 2-2 draw with the Union in which they conceded a penalty and an equalizer off similar plays, Villa should be licking his lips during training this week. The forward is also looking to further instill his presence on the rivalry. Villa's first New York derby tally came in the July 3 2-0 victory at Yankee Stadium.
The superstars aren't the only players working magic in the NYCFC lineup at the moment. Rookie Jack Harrison has brought a needed element of support in the final third alongside Villa. Cult hero Thomas McNamara has drifted out of the spotlight recently due to the exploits of others, but he popped up again with a two-assist performance in the 3-1 win over Montreal on Sunday at Stade Saputo.
As they have been since the inception of the franchise, the questions circling the City defense are out there leaving plenty of doubters of the club's MLS Cup credentials. However, the current defense in question in the New York metro area belongs to the Red Bulls.
Marsch and company have had a target on their backs as the team to beat in the East since he controversially took over for club hero Mike Petke ahead of the 2015 regular season. Just like the LA Galaxy in the West, the Red Bulls usually face the best efforts of every opponent due to their historic stature in MLS.
For 65 minutes on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium, the Red Bulls appeared to have three points in the bag leading up to the lone derby at Red Bull Arena this season, but they took their eyes off the prize and failed to finish off 10-man Philadelphia on the road. Now instead of featuring in the role of the hunted like they have for so long, the Red Bulls are hunting the leader of the pack in East.
That role may actually benefit the Red Bulls on Sunday and throughout the duration of the regular season. Every club needs a moment that lights a spark under it, and Sunday's disappointing draw may have been that for the Red Bulls with an important match ahead of them on their home soil.
The Red Bulls also have a rare full week of training to dwell on their shortcomings in Chester, Pennsylvania. If one of the longest-tenured sides in the East used their time in training the right way over the last few days, they will turn in an inspired performance on one of the league's biggest stages.
The perfect remedy for their current bad form could be a back-to-basics approach that could force NYCFC into a good amount of vulnerabilities. The high-pressing system used by Marsch should cause some trouble in the NYCFC midfield, especially if Lampard and Pirlo are forced to work more on the ball.
As was mentioned above, there are still plenty of concerns surrounding the ability of the City defense to perform, especially in high-profile matches like Sunday's. In the first New York derby of 2016, the Red Bulls opened up NYCFC on set pieces and won 7-0. If the Red Bulls' front five consistently use the press to wreak havoc among the City defense, chances could come early and often for Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The pressing effort will also allow captain Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan more space to operate in the final third. Following Sunday's tie against Philadelphia, the pair of midfielders were the most frustrated members of the Red Bulls squad. If they can light a fire underneath their teammates in preparation for the derby, the hosts have the potential to resurrect their season.
A win over City would allow the Red Bulls to create plenty of momentum heading into an important string of five matches in which they can gain ground on NYCFC. Marsch's men have winnable matches against Chicago, D.C., Montreal and New England coming up on their docket, while they also have a chance to steal points from the Galaxy on August 7 at StubHub Center.
Three points on the road and a second win over the Red Bulls would hand NYCFC an upper hand in the rivalry heading into 2017 as long as the two sides don't meet in the postseason. A victory would also propel City to an eight-point advantage over the Red Bulls in the standings, with the Union being the only side within a game's reach of them heading into August.
Even though there will be three months left in the regular season after Sunday's contest, the final result could go a long way in determining the respective fates of both clubs, and it also has the potential to shift the momentum in one of the derbies everyone in MLS plays attention to.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.