The regular season finale looked as if it was going to follow a familiar script for the Red Bulls and Chicago Fire.
Just one win away from capturing their first major trophy in franchise history, New York fell behind after former Metrostar, Mike McGee, scored to give the Fire an early 1-0 lead after just six minutes of play. With emotions on edge in a sold-out Red Bull Arena, supporters all across the stadium were wondering if the Red Bulls were going to find a way to end the trophy drought that has spanned their existence.
Not this time. Not under this coach. Not with these players.
This time, the Red Bulls would not be denied. This time, the Red Bulls would end any talk of jinxes or curses. This time, a trophy was going to go into the empty cabinet yearning for a piece of silverware.
Inspired and urged on by the home fans, the Red Bulls went on to score five unanswered goals after McGee’s opener, completely blitzing the Fire off the field to a 5-2 victory, clinching the MLS Supporters’ Shield – given to the team with the best regular-season record.
For head coach Mike Petke, a man whose ties run deep in this franchise, the Supporters’ Shield means so much. After spending two years as an assistant to former head coach Hans Backe, it was unclear if the ex-Red Bulls center back would be back on the staff to start the 2013 season. Now, the Long Island native will forever be known as the man who guided the Red Bulls to their first major success.
It was a stressful end to the regular season, but Petke will surely feel it was worth it.
“I got to be honest with you, these last two weeks have been tough,” a visibly emotional Petke told MSG’s Tina Cervasio after the game. “But this is what it’s about, right here. To see the excitement right now, the crowd, our players understanding this is history. The crowd deserves it, the supporters deserve it, the organization deserves it, the players deserve it. It’s a phenomenal moment.”
A lot of the praise must go to the head coach, who navigated his first season in the hot seat brilliantly. After a slow start to the season, Petke was able to galvanize the Red Bulls, from the team’s stars to the squad players, into a unit that gave 100 percent effort every time out on the pitch. Petke managed to get the best out of his team at the right time, steering New York to an incredible eight-match unbeaten run to end the season.
All credit goes to the Red Bulls’ players for performing when it mattered most. But they’ll tell you that their lift in the level of performance is because of their coach. The 37-year-old’s hard-nosed mentality has fully been embraced by his team to great effect.
“I think for a guy that shows so much passion, for a guy that is his first year as a head coach, he definitely put his imprint on this team,” Dax McCarty told the media after the game in the locker room. “I think the saying is very true, you play to the image of your coach and so sometimes it hasn’t been pretty, it hasn’t been great, but at the end of the day, you know that we’re going to come and battle. We’re going to fight, we’re going to be up for a scrap and that starts with Mike.”
For a player like Tim Cahill, who’s played for current Manchester United manager David Moyes, Petke has performed brilliantly under the circumstances and is fully deserving of all the accolades he’s getting.
“No one has got more passion than the manager, the drive and the will to win,” Cahill told Cervasio after the match. “You can bring any big superstar manager from around the world, but what he’s done this year is beyond all expectations. It’s nice to give some homegrown talent some credit. And the best thing is he’s American. This is a local coach who’s got a great bright future.”
Of course, Petke has his own plans for his near future. Clinching the Supporters’ Shield means that the road to MLS Cup comes through Harrison, NJ and Petke made it clear that Sunday’s result is just a small step on the journey, not the final destination. In his post-match speech to the fans, he made a special plea to his two children.
“To my two kids, daddy will back soon,” he said. “Give me five more games and daddy will give you the offseason of your lives, kids.”