Mike Petke’s team was even going into halftime, but the New York head coach was far from happy. One of the keys he’d tried to emphasis this week — the need to keep track of Chicago star Mike Magee — had failed to set in, with the Fire forward opening the game’s scoring with his league-leading 21st goal. Thierry Henry had pulled New York even before the break, but the intensity Petke took into the locker room made it clear. His team was about to get an attitude adjustment.
Four minutes into the second half, Ibrahim Sekagya gave New York the lead. Then came Lloyd Sam’s goal. Erik Alexander got behind the defense in the 77th minute, and Jonny Steele piled on six minutes from time, before Quincy Amarikwa consolation.. In the span of 45 minutes, a 1-1 game that was set to cost New York the Supporters’ Shield had turned into a rout, the Red Bulls’ 5-2 victory not only ending the Fire’s season but giving the New York club their first major honor.
The team had made it to one MLS Cup final, losing in 2008. They’d won the East two other times (2000, 2010) but failed to claim silverware. In 2003, they made it to the U.S. Open Cup final. Before Sunday, the most significant honors New York had ever won were regional (Atlantic Cups) or exhibitions (Emirates Cup). Yet after running Chicago out of Red Bull Arena in today’s second half, New York has claimed the 2013 Supporters’ Shield.
With that honor comes home field advantage throughout the playoffs, an achievement that’s particularly noteworthy when you consider the field New York’s had to hold off. Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers, and Real Salt Lake would all be worthy winners under other circumstances, and late in the season, the two-time defending champions (LA Galaxy) made a late push. But unbeaten in eight to close their campaign, New York surged to this honor, outscoring their opponents 8-2 over the season’s final eight days.
Petke deserves a huge amount of credit, and given the authority with which New York’s closed the season, expect the first-year boss to garner a lot of votes for Coach of the Year. Although he seems to be an underdog in that race (to Caleb Porter), the changes he’s instilled deserve just as much attention. Whereas in the Henry era New York has been a consistently good team that’s failed to reach its potential, Petke has the Red Bulls performing best when the results matter most, whether you’re looking at last month’s hamstrung draw in Seattle or today’s Shield-clinching performance. The young coach’s focus, passion, and intensity are evident throughout this team.
Jamison Olave’s come in to marshall the defense, Dax McCarty continues to be a rock in midfield, while Thierry Henry still reminds us that he’s the best player in Major League Soccer on those occasions that he wants to be. It will be Petke’s job to make sure Henry’s sees this year’s playoffs as his chance to cement his MLS legacy.
But more and more, Tim Cahill seems like the heartbeat of this team, with the Australia international playing a crucial role on the Sekagya goal that claimed today’s lead for good. At midseason, while Petke was working through issues with Henry, Cahill started producing, tossing aside concerns about his lack of production. The 34-year-old finished the season with 11 goals. Like his coach, Cahill will get some late consideration for postseason honors.
But after today, the honor that matters most to New York is MLS Cup, their dreams of claiming silverware having been fulfilled with today’s rout in Harrison. After 17 years with an empty trophy case, New York has finally claimed their first major honor, and while some time to enjoy the achievement has been earned, the quest for trophy number two starts next weekend. The Red Bulls will be the top seed in MLS’s playoffs.