Eighteen years of hurt has finally ended for the New York Red Bulls after they captured the MLS Supporters’ Shield. This statement is more powerful than it appears; the Red Bulls have boasted one of the highest earning squads in the league, packed with finance, and yet have practically nothing to show for it.
Despite all the big names and foreign talents plying their trade in New Jersey, it took a local legend to finally gel the finance, the stars, and the work ethic required to hoist the Supporters’ Shield in the air. Mike Petke has had a truly fantastic year, yet after Gerard Houllier’s reworking, the Red Bulls struggled to sign a new head coach. With names such as Paulo Sousa linked, the Red Bulls were unable to attract a suitably big named manager. It wouldn’t be unfair to describe Petke as the last resort, in fact some viewed him as a stop gap. The passionate and strong willed Petke saw the job as a great opportunity and threw himself into the role.
Petke was to be aided by some good squad reshaping. None were more effective than Jamison Olave, a commanding quality center-back acquired from Real Salt Lake. He arrived in tandem with the experienced Fabian Espindola, and more striking depth was to come as Peguy Luyindula later joined the club after a trial. In midfield, the wings were strengthened by the signings of forgotten men Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander.
Those aforementioned signings in particular gave an insight into what Petke was to bring to the Red Bulls. The likes of Espindola, Steele, and Alexander added a defensive steel to the team, with the two wingers often tucking inside or covering for the full backs. Espindola was brought in as an attempt to bring intensity to the front line. At the back, Olave was to provide quality and experience to a usually under-performing back line.
While the supporters shield shows that this did work, it wasn’t all rosy for the Red Bulls. The first four matches showed what fans would call the “so Metro” side of New York. A 3-3 opening draw with the Portland Timbers exposed the standard defensive frailties associated with New York. The next game was the definition of the Metro syndrome. A good performance was ruined by the ridiculous behavior of Roy Miller, who threw the game to San Jose. It took until the 5th attempt, against Philadelphia Union, for the Red Bulls to record their first win.
Speaking of Roy Miller, Petke’s quality was clearly displayed through his man-management. After Miller’s stupidity, Petke chose to send him back home earlier than his international call up. This decision brought a decisive turn around as Miller came back as a player who went from strong to stronger. This skill wasn’t limited to Miller; the lack of form from Steele and Alexander meant the Red Bulls often looked limp offensively, but his patience and faith was rewarded on a more consistent basis as the Red Bulls began to put a sequence of results together in April.
It was in this month when the Red Bulls discovered the man who would become their player of the season begin to assert his qualities on the team. Tim Cahill’s poor start to his New York career was eradicated in a dramatic late win against LA Galaxy. His infectious passion, leadership, and work rate was to become decisive for the Red Bulls as he dug his side out of trouble again and again through the season, lessening the burden on Thierry Henry. The reshaping of the team was to continue later in the season, as New York struck the perfect balance. The signing of players mid-season is often a risk, but the additions of Bradley Wright-Phillips, David Carney, and Ibrahim Sekagya were all to contribute to New York’s surge in the standings.
By the time of September, New York had hit a groove and Petke had a consistent strategy. In the final stretch, New York finished with a record of 5-2-0. This record was what pushed them ahead of the likes of Sporting Kansas City to secure their historic first major trophy. The final game of the regular season against Chicago Fire perfectly encapsulated the New York season. The Red Bulls tendency for a silly error was demonstrated early on by an optimistic finish from Mike Magee. After that, New York dug in and demolished the Fire by a 5-2 scoreline. A moment of brilliance from the imperious Thierry Henry was met in harmony by the workhouse performances of Tim Cahill and Dax McCarty.
The sense of pride on Mike Petke’s face as he lifted the shield showed how a man, unfancied by many with not enough of a big name, had just become the biggest manager in Major League Soccer. Petke and the New York Red Bulls can’t afford to rest on their laurels, with the playoff clash with either Houston or Montreal to come. With their blistering form, it would be foolish to rule out New York adding another trophy. If they are to lift the MLS Cup, it will happen a lot quicker than their previous trophy drought of eighteen years.