The goals that ended 18 years of frustration happened in front of the fans standing in the South Ward, the area where the New York Red Bulls’ most loyal partisans have sung and suffered for so long. One after another the goals came – four in a dizzying and delirious 35 minutes – each one further distancing a revitalized club from its maddening past.
The Red Bulls/MetroStars have churned through a generation of players and coaches in search of a title. So it’s fitting that the long-awaited first was the Supporters' Shield. Through all the agonizing defeats, lost seasons and rebuilds, New York fans somehow stayed true. They sold out Red Bull Arena on Sunday evening and their club delivered, routing the Chicago Fire, 5-2, to clinch the best regular season record in MLS.
“It will be a night that Red Bulls fans will remember,” captain Thierry Henry told MSG.
New York finished 17-9-8, one point ahead of Sporting Kansas City. Along with the honor of lifting the silver Shield before the South Ward, the Red Bulls earned a spot in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League and will host this year’s MLS Cup final if they qualify. The league championship trophy remains, of course, the big prize.
“Now we need to finish the job,” Henry said.
But Sunday night’s win was crucial. It ends any talk of a curse. It ends the sense of foreboding that envelops the club before big games. And it ends the embarrassment of being the only 20th-century MLS club without a major honor to its credit.
“You have to start somewhere,” midfield linchpin Dax McCarty told SI.com last week. “You have to start with a winning mentality and that’s the first thing you need if you’re going to be successful. … For us, winning the Shield will give us a taste of what it means to see ourselves as a successful team.”
Sunday’s game unfolded like the sort of match the Red Bulls would have blown in the past. Chicago (14-13-7) needed at least a draw to clinch a playoff spot, and league MVP candidate Mike Magee put the visitors in front in just the sixth minute. The Red Bulls gradually found their rhythm and equalized on a gorgeous goal from Henry, who chested down a long pass from Péguy Luyindula before hammering a 25-yard half-volley into the upper-right corner.
It was the French legend’s 10th goal this year. That’s not a golden boot number, but along with leading scorer Tim Cahill, Henry helped the Red Bulls create the right chemistry under first-year coach, hometown hero and exorcist Mike Petke. Many regard a training-ground dispute between Henry and Petke as a 2013 turning point. The captain took his medicine following the Aug. 29 flare-up and New York is 6-0-2 since.
“When the best players on your team, the guys that are the highest-profile players and the guys that are always in the spotlight, when they’re willing to get their hands dirty and willing to put their hands up when they make mistakes, you’ve already won half the battle,” McCarty said. “It makes the team mentality that much better.”
New York’s mentality was ruthless and relentless in Sunday’s second half. An Henry free kick in the 49th minute was bundled over the goal line by defender Ibrahim Sekagya, who New York signed in July. Midfielder Lloyd Sam made it 3-1 seven minutes later, taking a well-hit pass from the brilliant Luyindula and curling a perfect shot past Chicago’s Sean Johnson. Eric Alexander scored in the 77th and Jonny Steele netted in the 84th. But the time the Fire’s Quincy Amarikawa pulled one back in the 90th, the celebration already was underway.
New York became the ninth club to win the Shield (two, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, are defunct) and will open the MLS Cup playoffs against the survivor of this week’s knockout match between the Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact. The Red Bulls are five games from lifting the biggest trophy in American soccer. Only six Shield winners have done the double. Whatever happens over the next month, however, the history and perception of the club is forever different. None has become one. “We take it personally when people say the Red Bulls can’t win the big game,” McCarty said. “I want to make sure people aren't talking about the Red Bulls that way.”