Standing outside the visitors dressing room at Red Bull Arena after a 5-2 beating that eliminated his Chicago Fire from the MLS playoffs, it was too soon for perspective for a downcast Mike Magee. “This is going to hurt for a while,” Magee said. “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, it’s heartbreaking.”
After playing a big role in back to back MLS Cup titles the last two years for the L.A. Galaxy, Magee surprised many observers when he volunteered to be the other half of the trade that sent Robbie Rogers to Los Angeles this May. The trade turned the year around for the Fire, with Magee’s goal scoring exploits leading a Chicago revival.
Chicago coach Frank Klopas left no doubt how he felt about the veteran striker when he spoke just after Sunday’s gut wrenching defeat. “For me,” Klopas said, “he’s the MVP. Another very good performance, scored another very good goal tonight and look at the impact he’s had on our team. He’s a fantastic player and we’re happy to have him starting next year from the beginning.”
While Magee and Klopas spoke to GotSoccer, New York Red Bull rookie coach Mike Petke was just down the hall, basking in the first ever honors in the history of the franchise, be it called the MetroStars as the team was known when Magee and Petke were teammates a decade ago, or the Red Bulls as the club was rebranded in 2006.
Petke knows what this means to the fans, more so than most coaches in modern professional sports. The fiery former defender was brought up on Long Island, New York and has always worn his love for his hometown team on his sleeve. Enough so that Petke shrugged it off when ownership pursued bigger name coaches last offseason. Only offered the assignment when no one else seemed to want it, Petke chose not to sulk, and in one season has already led this team further than coaches like Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Carlos Queiroz and Bora Milutinovic.
An emotional Petke called winning the Supporters Shield, “a great moment in our franchise. For the players, the staff, for the supporters especially.” “It’s been a long time, it’s been a long time coming,” Petke exhaled, “and these guys earned it.”
French superstar Thierry Henry’s equalizing goal in the 24th minute was something to behold. Taking a long pass from Peggy Luyindula on his chest, Henry controlled, and surrounded by Chicago defenders, rifled a 25 yard rocket off the underside of the crossbar.
That moment of magic lifted the crowd and his teammates, and the game turned inexorably New York’s way. It was Henry’s 10th goal of the campaign, down from the 15 and 14 Henry has scored in each of his previous two seasons with the Red Bulls.
Those moments of transcendence haven’t come as often this season from Henry. Teammate Dax McCarty acknowledged as much after the game when he commented on Henry’s goal. “I’ve got news for you guys, that’s why he’s considered one of the best players who ever lived.” “You know he can do that at any given minute,” the tenacious midfielder said adding, “we’ve seen less of those moments from him this year and I think he would admit it.” “At the same time,” McCarty concluded, “you can’t ever deny his quality.”
Also less prevalent of late have been the other Henry moments, the scowls at teammates when a pass was fumbled away, or the arm waving when a run into the box was picked up too late, or not at all. His Red Bull teammates put it down to Henry’s perfectionism and they haven’t completely disappeared.
On Sunday, Chicago’s talented young defender Jalil Anibaba was on the the end of a withering Henry glare for an overzealous challenge as the ball carried out of play. And when a poor touch from teammate Johnny Steele cost a streaking Henry and the Red Bulls a breakaway, the man with his own statue outside of Emirates Stadium, could only shake his head.
At times such as these Henry brings to mind the likes of Eric Clapton sitting in with an unremarkable bar band. This year though, Tim Cahill has taken on more of a leadership role in the team, and the gritty Aussie may be a more relatable role model for his Red Bulls mates.
Team was a recurring theme among the Bulls after Sunday’s win, Henry included. Sitting on a low stool in front of his locker, reporters looming above, the former Arsenal legend spoke softly, emphasizing team.
“Everyone had to step up at one point, and we did it as a team,” Henry recounted. “At one point, Olave was scoring goals for fun, at the very beginning,” Henry said, adding with a laugh, “you’re like what?,”chuckling and drawing laughs.
Henry praised his teammates singling out keeper Luis Robles and saying of his fellow Designated Player Cahill, “Tim finished the season in an amazing way.” “The team performed,” Henry said. “Not having a go at anybody, but last year for example, if Kenny Cooper didn’t score or I didn’t score, then it would have been game over.”
Henry and his teammates know that the Supporters Shield is just the beginning. As Petke put it, “once twelve midnight strikes tonight, it’s a wonderful memory come twelve midnight, because we still have five games left and we’re going to be refocused and we’re going to be ready for the playoffs.”
Of course, the beauty and the pain of sports is that for every winner there has to be a loser. This week Chicago are one of those losers, but every player has been there and Mike Magee, a winner with L.A. the last two seasons, was consoled immediately after the game by Henry.
“He’s the best,” Magee said when asked what he and Henry spoke about. “He’s probably the best player in the league and one of the classiest guys I’ve met. I got a chance to hang with him a little bit in Kansas City (at the All-Star game) this year and I have nothing but respect for him. I just told him I wish him luck and that’s all.”
As much as the loss will linger for Magee and his Fire teammates, it sounds as if that perspective was already beginning to make itself known.