20-goal Magee the danger man for Chicago Fire on Sunday

Red Bulls know MVP candidate all too well, hope to keep him off scoreboard

The Red Bulls were reluctant to talk about many specifics this week. Supporters’ Shield on the line? “No, we’re just worried about three points.” Challenges posed by the Chicago Fire? “We’re just worried about us.” But when you score 20 goals, your days of MLS anonymity are over, and the Red Bulls were not reluctant to talk about former MetroStar and Red Bull Mike Magee, on whose shoulders much of the Chicago Fire’s playoff hopes have rested since June.

“Actually a guy that plays for Chicago can be MVP: Mike Magee has been tremendous,” no less a figure than Thierry Henry said when asked about a teammate’s MVP chances. While he went on to back said teammate for the honor, he reiterated that “Magee is a hell of a player. People were talking about Robbie Keane, and rightly so, and Landon Donovan and [David Beckham] and some other [LA Galaxy] players, but when we played them in the playoffs and every time they’ve been successful in the playoffs, it’s when Magee was on target. You need to remember that and know what type of player he is.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Magee joined the New York as an 18-year-old in 2003 after being selected with the fourth overall pick in that year’s SuperDraft. A steady and consistent contributor in New Jersey and in Southern California after being traded to the LA Galaxy in 2009, Magee seemed to rise to the postseason occasion. He scored eight goals in 14 playoff games during the Galaxy’s runs in 2009 (MLS Cup final) and 2011-12 (back-to-back MLS Cup championships).

After scoring six goals in the Galaxy’s first 10 games this season, he asked to be traded to his hometown as part of the deal that allowed Robbie Rogers to return to professional soccer with the Galaxy. He proceeded to light Chicago – and the Eastern Conference – absolutely en fuego, netting eight goals in his first 10 MLS games and adding two more in Open Cup play.

“Obviously Mike is in the MVP talk, and he should be – he’s had a phenomenal year,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke, whose tenures with the club always seemed to just miss Magee’s. “He’s had phenomenal years with LA. I’m very aware of him. I love the way he plays. It’s really about how our shape is and where do we want to limit him getting the ball.”

Most importantly, he brought hope to the Fire. Chicago was an unsightly 2-7-1 before the trade but has gone 12-5-5 since to rise to fourth in the Eastern Conference.

“Before he arrived at Chicago, they were struggling,”  Henry said of Magee. “Suddenly he gets on the scoresheet in the middle and makes the team play, they become a better team.”

While the Red Bulls have their eyes on the league’s regular-season title, Magee and the Fire might have more on the line on Sunday in terms of desperation: If Houston, New England and Philadelphia earn wins during the weekend, the Fire may need a win or tie just to make the postseason. That mentality is something Petke believes should not be overlooked as he tries to keep his own players relaxed and confident.

“Lost in all this is Chicago: I haven’t seen much in the tabloids and online about Chicago,” Petke said after Friday’s training session. “They have a huge game against us. All this talk about us and what it could mean and what’s on the line – I don’t need to put that pressure on my players. They’re smart enough to realize it themselves.”