HARRISON, N.J. – Minutes before the New York Red Bulls took the field at Red Bull Arena on Sunday, head coach Mike Petke delivered a touching speech. The long-time club icon reminded his players that they were on the brink of history and told them he believed they'd be able to go out and do it not only for themselves, but for the club and its long-suffering fans as well.
Two hours later, the Red Bulls lifted the first league-wide trophy in club history under dream circumstances, routing the Chicago Fire 5-2 in front of a sold-out crowd of 25,219 in their regular-season finale.
Afterwards, Petke delivered another emotional speech to the fans, and the players and staff (including long-time equipment manager Fernando Ruiz) lifted the Supporters’ Shield trophy in front of some of their most ardent supporters in the South Ward. Red Bull Arena was swimming in ecstasy, and some of the anguish of 18 years without a league championship vanished just like that.
“This is a great moment, for the players, for the staff, for the supporters, especially,” said Petke after the game. “It’s been a long time. It’s been a long time coming, and these guys earned it. It doesn’t matter what’s written, it doesn’t matter how we played in certain moments -- these guys gave me everything they had this year and this season. I’m at a loss for words. As a professional, aside from my family life and personal life, as a player and a coach, this is by far ... the best moment because of what it means to this organization and these supporters and us.”
The Red Bulls players did not pour champagne on one another in the locker room as some expected, but they didn't need to in order to express how elated they were. That was already abundantly clear with the ear-to-ear smiles, dozens of jokes from visibly relaxed players, and the jovial mood in the locker room after a victory many thought would not happen given New York’s cursed past.
“If we talk about tonight, as in tonight and not tomorrow, it’s a great moment, great moment,” said captain Thierry Henry, who scored the spectacular goal that canceled out Mike Magee’s silencing sixth-minute opener. “We’ve been waiting for that for a very long time.”
Added Tim Cahill, who exited in the 88th minute to chants of "MVP": “I just really wanted to savor the moment and just watch the fans celebrate and the players and the people that have been here the longest. For Petke and Fernando to lift the trophy was a special touch. I’ll touch the trophy later, but we enjoyed tonight.”
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Most, if not all, of the Red Bulls made sure to mention that their work was not done yet. The focus will quickly shift toward winning the MLS Cup, as that would truly punctuate what has been a remarkable season up to this point.
First thing's first, though, and that’s a little celebration for the staff, players and supporters for winning an overdue trophy.
“The fans deserve it, and [the media] knows how much they’ve suffered,” said midfielder Dax McCarty. “For me, it’s been three years [here], but I can feel their pain and suffering, and it kind of just all evaporated out of Red Bull Arena as soon as that final whistle blew. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.