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Mike Petke revels in club's regular-season championship

HARRISON, N.J. – Admittedly at a loss for words, New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke stood in front of dozens of media members on Sunday night when asked what it felt like to hoist the Supporters’ Shield trophy in front of some of the club’s most fervent fans. Petke could only nod in agreement as he was compared to a proud father, because in many ways, that is exactly what he was.

The Red Bulls won their first-ever league-wide title with a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Fire in front of a sold-out crowd at Red Bull Arena, and fittingly it was Petke at the helm during the historic night. The rookie head coach had guided his beloved club to something few predicted back when he was surprisingly handed the job this past January, and the passionate Petke’s emotions were visible throughout the day for all to see.

Not only did Petke seem ready to burst into tears as Eric Alexander scored the goal that gave the Red Bulls a commanding 4-1 lead in the second half. The 37-year-old New York native also delivered a touching speech over the stadium's public-address system after the game, moments before lifting the Supporters’ Shield in front of many of the same fans who have endured all the club’s despair alongside him over the past 18 years.

“I feel like over the last two weeks, the pressure and the stress I felt on my shoulders that I put myself under -- I feel like I can handle anything in life now,” said Petke, who had downplayed the magnitude of the opportunity with his best poker face during that time. “It was tough; very emotional last few weeks. I just kept having this reoccurring thought, and I kept trying to explain to my wife I just didn’t want to let down the fanbase. I didn’t want to let down the organization after being so close after so many years of heartache."

“It was a tough two weeks. It hasn’t sunk in right now,” he continued. “After the third goal went in, there was a bit of relief and after the – what did we score, five goals today? – fourth and fifth, it was great.”

Petke bleeds Red Bulls colors, and his players know and appreciate it. That is why Tim Cahill sprinted over to Petke in the 84th minute after Jonny Steele netted New York’s fifth goal, and why Thierry Henry tried to make it a priority to have Petke be one of the first to touch and lift the Supporters’ Shield during the post-game celebrations.

It is also why chants of “Michael Petke” rang out at Red Bull Arena late in the second half.

“You could see today that Mike was a bit more having more pressure than usual, but it’s normal at the end of the day,” Henry said. “It’s the team that you support, the team that you grew up with. You want the team to do well. He was trying to hide it, but you could see it tonight.”

Said Cahill: “I remember the start of the season when the big-name managers were touted about to bring success to this football club, but it’s this guy that’s the heart and soul. He knows what it is to be a New York Red Bull … It’s just a credit he deserves.”

Petke may deserve this dream moment as much as anyone, but you will not hear him say that. Not when there is still work to be done with the playoffs just around the corner.

Still, this Red Bulls legend will enjoy it as long as he can.

“I think why it’s so strange to me and hasn’t sunk in yet is because as soon as the whistle blew, of course there was happiness, but we have five games left,” said Petke.”But at the end of the day, you sit back and say, ‘In (18) years, this club has nothing to show for as far as hardware goes.’ It was tough for me to grab that and raise it over my head because we have five games left.

“But, looking around, our captain Thierry, him jumping around in the moment and guys understanding it’s the moment. This is not going to carry on for three, four, five days. These players are a part of history now in this club, and history is a good thing to look back on after playoffs are over and you’re sitting back having a glass of wine in the offseason. But after tonight, it’s back to the drawing board.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.