The Metrostars don’t live here anymore

metrostars-dont-live-here-anymore
Mike Petke embraces Tim Cahill. (MLSSoccer.com)
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The Red Bulls had one last bit of Metrostars in them.

The match on Sunday afternoon carried with it the potential to be the greatest triumph in the difficult, trophy-free history of the franchise. A win over the Chicago Fire meant a Supporters' Shield title, awarded to the best regular-season team, along with a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League next year, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

But first: the Fire's Mike Magee scored, six minutes in, and the sellout crowd at Red Bull Arena, gathered to witness history, thought instead they were seeing it repeat.

It wasn't just that in a critical match, New York trailed. It was Magee too, a player the Red Bulls had for six years, with indifferent results, then cast aside. Magee scored 23 goals in six seasons with New York. He has 21 this year alone for the Chicago Fire, an MVP-level season.

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Twitter exploded, and fans quickly assumed the worst, which hasn't been a poor bet for as long as M.L.S. soccer has been played here.

But this Red Bulls team, all season, has looked different than any to come before it. And so, too, did the rest of this match, a remarkable 5-2 thrashing that began a wild celebration in Harrison, New Jersey.

In the 24th minute, Thierry Henry, whose signing back in 2010 was supposed to presage a different era in Red Bulls history, delivered a remarkable goal, creating space himself, and bending one around two defenders and goalkeeper Sean Johnson into the net.

"Let me tell you, no goalkeeper in the world is getting a hand on this," Red Bulls commentator Shep Messing noted, appreciatively.

The half ended with the teams knotted at 1-1. But shortly after the second half began, more Henry magic came on a free kick, placed into dangerous territory, met by Dax McCarty, who gives the impression he hasn't stopped running since the season began. In the resulting battle for the ball, Tim Cahill muscled it into the goal, and the Red Bulls led. The Metrostars faded a bit more into the distance.

Cahill and McCarty were never Metrostars, in any sense. Neither are Luis Robles, the goalkeeper whose impressive feed to Peguy Luyindula began a four-on-three break in the 55th minute. He distributed to Lloyd Sam, surprise starter, who rewarded coach Mike Petke with a curling shot into the far corner of the net. The Red Bulls had their two-goal advantage. The sellout crowd had room to breathe. The Metrostars never gave fans room to breathe. Neither had the Red Bulls, until now.

Cahill, though, never worried.

"Pressure is pressure," Cahill told reporters when it was over. "Every week it was pressure; Houston, Seattle… there’s pressure every week. I was really relaxed this week, because I really believe in the team’s ability. We were playing tournaments in the week and right now it’s just a moment to savor it, it’s a pretty special moment for New York Red Bulls."

Nor did the Red Bulls sit on that lead. Eighteen years of frustration poured out of the stands while the Red Bulls took out those frustrations on the Fire, who were more than just a stand-in opponent: they were playing for playoff seeding.

How much had the script of nearly two decades been utterly reversed? There was Joel Lindpere, a once-vital member of the Red Bulls, giving the ball away in the 77th minute. And Eric Alexander, brought in to partially replace Lindpere, took care of the fourth goal himself from another Luyindula feed, breaking down the sideline and firing it past the goalkeeper to put the Red Bulls ahead 4-1.

Mike Petke, who has been with this club through so much as player, assistant, and now head coach at its moment of greatest triumph, blew kisses to the fans, which is what the whole match was, really.

"This is a great moment in our franchise, for the players, for the staff, for the supporters especially," Petke said afterward. "It’s been a long time, it’s been a long time coming, and 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. I’m at a loss for words."

The Red Bulls weren't finished. Here came Jonny Steele, added just before the season by a front office that seemed to find precisely the players the team has needed all season long, to add a fifth goal on a perfect feed from Henry.

Delirium. Tim Cahill leaped into Petke's arms, the coach laughing, a half-long celebration started long before the final whistle. Henry, his head down, lifted his finger in triumph, signaling that the Red Bulls were number one.

And then, in the 90th minute, there was the kind of goal that used to end Metrostars seasons. A corner from Lindpere, the former Red Bull. A set piece, poorly defended.

Except this Red Bulls team doesn't leave things to chance. Not this year. All it did was fill out the scoring.

"Well, that goal's gonna be no consolation for the Chicago Fire, unless they get three more," Messing said. 

They didn't. The final whistle blew. Petke and Henry embraced. The Red Bulls sit atop Major League Soccer. They scored so much, Petke lost count.

"It was tough, very emotional the last two weeks," Petke said. "I just kept having this reoccurring thought, you know, and I tried to explain it to my wife. I just didn’t want to let down the fan base, I didn’t want to let down the organization being so close after so many years of heartache, I guess you could say. It was a tough two weeks, so it hasn’t sunk in right now. After the third goal went in, there was a bit of relief, and then the fourth…and what did we score, five goals this week? Fourth and fifth, it was great."

Even if they lose in the playoffs, this season has been indelibly marked as different than any that came before it.

But it's also awfully hard to imagine this group losing in Metrostars fashion, or really, at all, now unbeaten in eight straight, and playing as well as anyone in the league.

The Metrostars are dead. Long live the Red Bulls.