Myth, legend — it all ties into the tapestry of sport with a fluid ease. In baseball, it was Steve Bartman who famously endeared himself to Marlins fans while enraging his fellow Cubs fans by “Catching Hell” (as ESPN 30 for 30 coined it). Further East, there was the Curse of the Bambino that plagued the Boston Red Sox for almost a century. Meanwhile at the home of the New York Red Bulls, there is a similar pessimistic conjecture that emerges around the time of the playoffs.
‘Caricola’ is a name that conjures the image of a medieval middle eastern monster. The truth is somewhat less fanciful. Nicola Caricola, the former Juventus and Genoa defender, spent a spell in MLS and also holds the unwanted mantle of ‘own goal’ scorer at Giants Stadium.
“It was the first game at Giants Stadium, 46,000 people, I’ll never forget that game,” he told MLSSoccer.com recently. A memorable day, but it gained a more sickening relevance for Caricola when Tony Meola palmed away a shot in the final seconds. A tired prod from Caricola sent the ball into the one place he didn’t want it to end up — his own net. With New York Red Bulls the only original franchise still unable to win the MLS Cup, reasoning was sought and so the curse was born.
As with any good folklore and tales of misfortune, there must be supplementary examples. “The curse of Caricola is a great story to me, it’s like the ‘Curse of the Bambino’,” current head coach Mike Petke admitted.
Petke is a non-believer even though he has had closer exposure than most. Chicago, the Eastern Conference Final, 2000. The decisive fixture in a three game series (as was the format then). Tied at 2-2 after recovering from a two goal deficit, Adolfo Valencia races onto a defensive mistake, and scores what he (and at the time Petke) assumed to be a potential game winning goal.
Piercing the celebrations with a shrill whistle, Petke likens the polarizing feelings to ‘what I imagine a heart attack to be like’. If Petke’s heart was weak at the moment, Valencia’s goal was struck off. It suffered a second blow minutes later. Ante Razov burst through to end the Metrostars hopes, and gave further credence to the cynical curse believers among the fan base.
“It haunted me for a while,” Petke said with a chilling tone. With a name change, and a rebranding, you may have thought the curse would perish too. Could the new Red Bulls
provide the catharsis its patrons had longed for? It had a chance in 2012 against DC United, the antithesis of New York when it comes to success in MLS.
A goalless first leg placed New York in the position of power, a grip that was further strengthened by the dismissal of Bill Hamid that granted Kenny Cooper a penalty kick. The striker was coming off a fantastic year in front of goal. Confidently striding up, he stroked the ball home and now new memories could be chiseled into the consciousness of fans – or at least so it seemed.
The whistle, the deja vu, it was all coming back to haunt the franchise again. This time there was nothing to be debated. Players had encroached the penalty, and while not always ruthlessly enforced, the referee was right to call it. Yet allowing yourself a moment of empathy with the crestfallen fans, you can see why self-pity was easier to meander to. Countless spot kicks have bore witness to the same issue and yet none have been recalled.
As Cooper prepared himself for round two against substitute Joe Willis, it seemed the script was being whispered around the ground. An identical run up, a little stutter. Saved. The stand-in keeper had become a hero and denied another New York player the chance to bury the demons swirling around the club in play-off season.
To compound the misery and now a man light, DC United scored to win the game, one which descended into a tail spin for a franchise that like years gone by had so much promise when regaling the team-sheet, yet could not deliver. With Petke now serving as head coach, his season has begun brilliantly.
Delivering the Supporters Shield, to see the hometown boy bring home the silverware has been a bright spot of the MLS season. And as he lay the Shield to rest on the stand, his attentions almost undoubtedly focused on the MLS Cup. New York not only has a blessed squad, but a cohesive one. Its reliance on Thierry Henry does not seem as strong. Now it stands on its own, while still holding his clutch potential when required.
Yet in the back of the mind waiting for the club to slip up was a post season case of schadenfreude. It didn’t seem like it would happen on Sunday. Two quick goals from Tim Cahill and Eric Alexander placed New York in a position of comfort. Then a rush of blood to Jamison Olave’s head saw him lunge in on Omar Cummings and earn a stupid red card.
Ending the game tied at 2-2, tonight’s game will see them try to prove they, like their manager, have moved past the claims of a curse and begun to write their own history, with no consideration for the one that preceded them.
Programming alert: Tonight’s second leg of the Eastern Conference semi-final against Houston will be shown live at 8pm ET on Univision Deportes.