For most coaches, a 4-1 lead would be enough to make them feel pretty comfortable. But it wasn't until Mike Petke saw Jonny Steele’s insurance goal make the score in Sunday’s regular season finale against the Chicago Fire 5-1 did the New York Red Bulls coach let out a scream that released years of frustration and pain and disappointment.
After 18 trophy-less years filled with some of the most gut-wrenching failures Major League Soccer has seen, the Red Bulls exorcised the club’s demons with the type of performance their fans probably thought they’d never see.
Instead of failing, the Red Bulls turned in the type of game worthy of silverware. They shook off an early Mike Magee goal that felt like it might be the precursor to more heartache, and with the help of a brilliant Thierry Henry strike, the Red Bulls proceeded to dismantle Chicago in a defeat that cost the Fire a place in the playoffs, and kicked off a celebration nearly two decades in the making.
Nobody felt it more than Petke, the hometown product who spent years wearing MetroStars and Red Bulls uniforms, and saw many of the disappointments that riddled the club’s history. He endured the 1999 and 2009 seasons as a player, when the club posted two of the worst seasons in MLS history.
That is why Petke could be seen near tears after Lloyd Sam’s goal made the score 4-1, but even that didn’t make him feel totally comfortable. it wasn’t until Steele’s goal that Petke felt comfortable truly believing his club was going to enjoy a happy ending for once.
That painful history made it all the sweeter when Petke and team equipment manager Fernando Ruiz held up the 2013 Supporters' Shield after the match. Ruiz was the club’s longest-serving employee, having put in a dozen consecutive years with a front row seat to many of the team’s biggest failures. That made him uniquely qualified to put Sunday’s events into perspective.
“Many lows? They were basically all lows,” Ruiz quipped when asked about the team’s history before Sunday. “More than the win, I loved the ambiance in the locker room, and the way the guys are playing, which is really a reflection of how Mike used to play. He was never the most gifted or skilled player, but he gave you 150 percent.
“Now we have players with some tremendous skills, and now with the heart and the love for the team they have shown this year, I think we are on the way to bigger and better things.”
Player after player credited Petke with inspiring the team to exceed expectations, much the way Petke did after taking over as head coach just before the season.
“I remember the start of the season, when the big-name managers were touted about to bring success to this football club, but tonight this guy’s the heart and soul,” Cahill said of Petke. “He knows what it means to be a New York Red Bull.”
There was something fitting about that fact that, on a night the Red Bulls finally broke through and won a trophy, they battered the Fire to win it. Why? It can be argued that, in the club’s history, its best two chances for silverware were in the 2000 playoffs with the strongest team the club ever had before this year, and in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup final.
The Fire eliminated the 2000 New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the Eastern Conference finals, in a decisive Game 3 (that Petke started in). Three years later, the Fire edged the MetroStars, 1-0, in the Open Cup final, celebrating the triumph at Giants Stadium in front of some of the same fans who enjoyed a much different outcome nine years later.
“These fans deserve it. You guys have been around a long time and know how much they deserve it,” Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said. “For me, it’s been three years, 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, so it was an amazing feeling.”
SPORTING KC RIDING HIGH INTO PLAYOFFS
Though his team ultimately fell short in its bid for the Supporters' Shield, Peter Vermes is still feeling extremely confident about its chances heading into the playoffs — especially given the way the club finished Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union.
“What showed me something is how much we had left in the gas tank, which is gigantic going into the playoffs,” Vermes said after Lawrence Olum’s stoppage-time game winner. “To have that kind of energy late in a game, to have the determination to get it done, and then to get it done, is phenomenal.”
Saturday’s victory left Sporting KC with the second-best record in the league, while the team also posted the second-best record in MLS over the final eight matches of the regular season.
"As a club, we are in the top two in points [in the East] in the last three years. In this league, that’s not easy,” Vermes told Goal. “That’s a consistency over the course of the whole entire season, the grind. We all know that at this time somebody can get hot and then take off, but to do that over the course of this year, and with as many changes as we’ve had, it’s a testament to what a great group we have. They’re determined to find success.”
PLAYOFF MATCHUPS SET
The Houston Dynamo will take on the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference play-in game, with the winner facing the Red Bulls in the semifinals. Meanwhile, in the West, the Seattle Sounders will look to snap a seven-match winless streak by knocking off the same Colorado Rapids team that handed them an embarrassing 5-1 defeat earlier this month.
Who has the edge in these matches? The Dynamo posted a solid 4-1-2 record in the final seven matches of the regular season, a significantly better stretch than Montreal enters the postseason with. The Impact managed just one win in their final eight, for a 1-6-1 stretch. When you consider Houston’s success in the playoffs under coach Dom Kinnear, you have to pick the Dynamo to win this matchup.
Meanwhile, Seattle is looking for its first win in six weeks, but the Sounders can take heart in boasting a much better road record than their opponents. The Rapids have just one win in their past seven road matches, including three consecutive shutout losses.
Colorado will still head into the match with some confidence after the 5-1 mauling of the Sounders, but Seattle will be at home and will secure a place in the semifinals, where a matchup against the Portland Timbers awaits.
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