Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
On Sunday night, curses didn’t matter. Past failures didn’t matter. Nor did 18 mostly disappointing years matter. On this Sunday night, these New York Red Bulls were not going to lose.
On a night when previous Red Bulls teams may have wilted under the pressure of potentially winning their first major piece of silverware, this Red Bulls squad ignored club history and turned in a performance never before seen in the club’s history.
Thanks to four second-half goals and a wonder strike from Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls defeated the Chicago Fire, 5-2, on Sunday evening at Red Bull Arena in front of a sold-out crowd of 25,219. The win earned the Red Bulls first place in the Eastern Conference and the Supporters Shield title, the first major piece of silverware in club history.
The loss eliminated the Fire from playoff contention. They were tied on points and wins with the Montreal Impact, but the Impact advanced to the playoffs by having scored more goals.
The story of the night though was the Red Bulls, which exorcised their demons with a win that had fans, and head coach Mike Petke, in tears.
“This is a great moment in our franchise for the players, for the staff, for the supporters especially, it’s been a long time coming,” Petke said after the game. “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 to end the season.”
Despite the final outcome, the Red Bulls couldn’t have asked for a worse start, and the goal came via two Fire players with connections to the club. New Jersey native Dilly Duka was given space outside the box in the 6th minute and ripped a long-range shot that caught Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles off-balance. Robles did his best to parry the shot but the ball was sent into the path of Mike Magee, who finished easily from close range to give the Fire an early lead. The goal was Magee’s 21st of the season, putting him in the clear lead for the MLS scoring title.
After trying to play through the flanks, the Red Bulls tied the match in the 25th minute with a simple chip down the middle. The finish however was anything but simple. Peguy Luyindula, playing a midfield role on Sunday, found Henry between the Fire defense with a chip pass. Henry chested the ball down and then on the half volley, unleashed a vicious strike that went in off the top of the crossbar, leaving Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson helpless.
“That’s why he’s considered one of the greatest players to ever live,” Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said. “It was a fantastic finish, one of the goals of the season for me. The skill it takes to pull off a goal like that is amazing and it sent us on our way.”
It was Henry’s 10th of the year and 41st in a Red Bulls uniform, tying him with Giovanni Savarese for second on the all-time Red Bulls/Metrostars scoring list.
Though the hosts contained the better of the chances in the rest of the half, the Red Bulls came out in the second half with a renewed sense of urgency that was absent through the early part of the match.
It only took the Red Bulls five minutes into the second half to reverse the scoreline. Off a free kick taken by Henry, Red Bulls defender Ibrahim Sekagya scored on a goalmouth scramble to put the Red Bulls ahead for good, with an assist from Tim Cahill on the play.
Six minutes later on a break set up by Luyindula, Lloyd Sam finished the game off with a beautiful curling strike after turning around his defender from the edge of the box to make it 3-1 Red Bulls.
“Peguy played it across, I took one touch and the (defender) was coming,” Sam said. “I knew if I faked to shoot he’s going to have to try and block it. That’s just a go-to move to me. So I chopped inside and I had a bit of space, and it went exactly where I wanted it to go. It’s just nice when it comes off like that and then you see it hit the back of the net.”
Red Bulls substitute Eric Alexander was set up from a similar position by Luyindula as he had acres of space to run into down the right win, firing past Johnson from a tight angle in the 77th minute. Red Bulls winger Johnny Steele put the icing on the cake with a close range first-time finish off an Henry cross in the 84th minute to make it a 5-1 lead for the hosts.
“I knew at that moment when we got to halftime that (the team) would come out sparked,” Petke said. “I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew they’d come out fired up. Perhaps that first 45 minutes was a way for them to get the (poor play) out of their system and the second half they came out blazing.”
In the final minutes of the match, Petke substituted both Cahill and Henry to boisterous ovations from the Red Bulls supporters.
“(A) great night,” Henry said. “I think it’s an amazing (moment) for this club. For the fans, I guess they have been waiting for a very long time for that. Me too, since I’ve been here.
“It’s a great night, I think we have to enjoy it and come back tomorrow, next week, and prepare for the playoffs.”
The Fire added a consolation prize in the 90th minute when Fire substitute and former Red Bull Joel Lindpere curled a corner kick that was headed home by fellow substitute Quincy Amarikwa.
“This is going to hurt for a while,” Magee said after the match. “It’s cool to score goals and all but you play the game to lift the trophy and to kind of come that close after so much work just to get ourselves back in a spot to have a chance at making the playoffs, to be honest is heartbreaking.”
While the Fire’s season is over, the Red Bulls begin preparations on Monday for their next match on Saturday or Sunday against either the Houston Dynamo or the Montreal Impact, who will play mid-week for the right to face the Red Bulls next.
Here are the game highlights: