When the final whistle blew on Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, the man whom I have sat beside for the past two seasons, a man who has watched this team since 1996, disappeared into a scrum of jumping, hugging, whooping, delight. Once disentangled, still straightening the clothes that were were almost torn from his back, he surveyed the gathering celebrations on the field. "I thought I'd be more emotional," he said.
The first time rarely works out the way it was envisaged for anyone, and there was no exception for the New York Red Bulls. For a start, it wasn't supposed to take this long: 18 seasons, two team names, and a new stadium, since the club kicked off MLS as one of the league's "originals". Famously, no team in MLS had gone longer without a trophy -- we can lose the "meaningful" caveat now; the days of shamefacedly referencing Disney, Emirates and La Manga Cups are over. No more Mickey Mouse, we have the real deal.
Not that the team appeared destined for a trophy when Chicago's captain, Mike Magee, tapped in from close range in the sixth minute. This match wasn't quite a winner-takes-all Cup final -- such a designation requires both teams to be competing for the same prize. In this instance, Chicago needed the win to make the playoffs, a reward worthy of the effort the Fire brought to the game. This was not, however, level with the Red Bulls' incentive: to finally end the club's 18-year, woulda-coulda-shoulda streak of futility. Still, spoiling the party for New York fans is a time-honored tradition for Chicago soccer (the 2003 US Open Cup final is merely the best example). The Fire came out hot in the opening minutes, tested New York's defense on both flanks and down the middle, before settling on a fizzing shot from Dilly Duka that caught Luis Robles by surprise. Magee had the rebound in the back of the net before Shep Messing had time to cue up his soliloquy on the folly of goalkeepers parrying shots in front of goal (they don't do it out of forgetfulness, Shep).
The Red Bulls did recover their composure, launching their own attacks, principally through the fail-safe tactic of getting the ball to Thierry Henry. Initially, however, it was a plan which highlighted Henry's limitations as a target forward: he skewed a header wide of goal, and the penalty area, in the 13th minute. While Henry lurked and battled up front, chances fell to Peguy Luyindula (twice) and Dax McCarty -- none were converted. Still, there aren't many players in the league as dangerous in possession as Henry, and perhaps the Fire defense would eventually provide him with a chance to hit the target, if the team just kept feeding him the ball. That chance came in the 24th minute.
Chicago were getting their own opportunities, and the Red Bulls' equalizer began with some nimble defending. Juan Luis Anangono is a big man with quick feet, and he dribbled to the edge of the area, where Jamison Olave just managed to force the forward inside, into a hastily back-tracking Ibrahim Sekagya. Possession recovered, New York quickly worked the ball to Peguy Luyindula on the halfway line, who looked up, saw Henry making a run, and launched a ball over the top. The space between thought and action is the playground of genius. As Henry chested the ball down, the Fire center backs continued running toward goal, then turned back, unsure whether to press or hold position -- and that was the moment Henry realized he had the time and space to try something. He looped his shot into the top corner from outside the eighteen-yard box.
It wasn't the game winner, but it was the goal that restored the belief that New York could win. Henry hadn't scored a goal for the Red Bulls since September 14th, and the team had grown accustomed to relying on Tim Cahill. However, this match, in which New York weren't just fighting the Fire but also their own always-the-bridesmaid history, was one in which the club captain's input was required. He delivered.
The goal was a relief, but not a cure. The teams were tied at half-time, but the Red Bulls needed the win. Ominously, two troubling statistics accompanied the Red Bulls on their way to the dressing room: the Fire had lost just one match this season after scoring first, and New York had never won a game with a trophy on the line. While the home side had dominated possession for long stretches, and defended well, Chicago were a proven threat. Duka forced another big save out of Robles before the first half ended, just to remind the Red Bulls of that threat before they headed inside for orange slices and the most important half-time team talk of Mike Petke's short career as a head coach.
In many ways, the first half was a reprise of a familiar Red Bulls' trope from the last few seasons: the team teeters precariously on the cusp of anti-climax, and a moment of Henry magic pulls it back from the brink. The second half, however, was testament to new themes: urgency and vigor under pressure, a squad with improved depth of talent, and Petke's increasing confidence as a tactician.
The team came out for the second half exactly as it had started the first, despite not necessarily functioning as its coach might have desired -- Lloyd Sam was too often forced into the middle of the pitch, and Chicago's defense (but for one exception) was not really being stretched away from Cahill and Henry. Still, Petke held faith with his players, and was rewarded.
First, in the 49th minute, an Henry free kick found Dax McCarty in the box, and his header was sensationally saved by Sean Johnson. The Fire 'keeper put everything he had into stopping the shot on the line, but he never got the chance to gather the rebound. Cahill and Sekagya converged on the ball, which pinged around the goalmouth before crossing the line into the net. The goal was initially credited to Cahill, subsequently Sekagya -- whoever touched it last is irrelevant, because the true scorer was simply an all-for-one effort by the team to get the first tally of the second half.
Chicago weren't out of it, but the goal forced them to invest more resources in attack, which is how Peguy Luyindula came to lead a four-on-three breakaway in the 56th minute. He had Henry to his left, Dax McCarty streaking through the middle, but Luyindula chose ostensibly his weakest option: Lloyd Sam, on the right with Johnson covering the near post and Gonzalo Segares at close quarters. It proved an inspired decision -- Sam cut back on to his left foot (did we know Sam had a left foot?) and curled his shot to the top corner of the far side of goal. It was deft, intelligent, and ultimately held up as the game winner.
Seventeen seasons of failure builds a resilient pessimism in a fan base. Up in the stands, we didn't just want another, we thought we might need it. The Fire's head coach, Frank Klopas, shuffled his deck of former New York players: Jersey-boy Dilly Duka came off, almost-a-Red-Bull Quincy Amarikwa came on; then, in the 75th minute, the Arena's favorite Estonian, Joel Lindpere, joined the fray. Fortunately, the fear of a Lindpere-inspired reversal of fortune was short-lived.
Petke's first substitution was Eric Alexander for a visibly fatigued Sam. The opportunity to curse this change came in the 77th minute, when yet another stellar Luyindula pass sent Alexander through on goal. The man has been a stalwart for New York this season, but pace and finishing have not been his strengths. He dribbled toward Sean Johnson, who invited Alexander on to him, correctly anticipating this would buy time for the defense to get back into position. For what felt like eons, Alexander danced over the ball, as defenders closed in and Johnson braced for an apparently inevitable collision. And then he struck -- perfectly placing his shot to Johnson's right, as the 'keeper went left. 4-1, less than 15 minutes to play: game over.
There was still time for a cherry on top. Henry got past two men with one touch in the 84th minute, curled a cross behind the defense, and Jonny Steele hammered another shot past the unfortunate Johnson for New York's fifth. Chicago's second goal, an Amarikwa header from a Lindpere corner, was scarcely noticed in my section. Still, it was nice to know the statistical record of this match will record the presence of a New York soccer legend.
An emphatic win in front of a sold-out home crowd brought New York's MLS club its first trophy. The Supporters' Shield is, perhaps, the most appropriate title for this club to win as its first piece of silverware, because it was literally brought into being by fans. And for the first seventeen seasons of its history, it was the fans who sustained this club. Despite the best efforts of MLS to spread on-field success evenly around the league, the New York franchise remained stubbornly resistant to the charms of parity and a constantly evolving set of loopholes, designed to allow owners to fast-track that parity if they felt the need.
Absent any reason to believe, beyond a catchy chant and a fondness for the acoustics of near-empty NFL stadia, people continued to watch this team. The clamor for tickets to witness the club actually win something suggests there will be a boost to the crowd at Red Bull Arena next season. And we hope, collectively, to see more nights like this one -- but we'll never forget the first time.