What Does the New York Red Bulls Accomplishment Mean for American Soccer?

The New York Red Bulls beat Chicago 5-2 on Sunday to win the MLS’ Supporters Shield, the first major trophy in the history of the club.

At MLS HQ the relief must have been immeasurable. For much of MLS’ existence ensuring a presence in North America’s largest media market has been a priority. Despite the ability since 1996 to sign high-profile foreign players, the New Jersey based club has never won a trophy and had become the laughing stock of the league.  So desperate has MLS been to penetrate the New York City media market that a second entry, the Manchester City and New York Yankees backed NYCFC, was launched in May. At that point the fear among many Red Bulls supporters and neutrals was having failed repeatedly, the New Jersey based club would become somewhat of a bastard stepchild for both the league and the local market.

That’s why Sunday afternoon’s events felt so special. A title being won by long suffering fans, in an American cathedral of the sport (albeit a very new cathedral) with top shelf international stars showing their emotions was as good it gets in the domestic game on this side of the pond.  A club that’s been cursed, lifting that very curse in the grandest fashion of all in front of a national television audience (editor’s note: albeit Spanish-language only) and a sold out crowd.

Longtime playing cult-hero Mike Petke managed the team that won their first ever trophy in his first season as a manager at any professional level. He’s built a belief in the players and also stood up to the great stars of the club, enforcing he is the boss while keeping everyone relatively happy.

Petke understands the psyche of the American player unlike so many previous foreign coaches the organization has hired before him, and knows the league well enough to master the rules. Petke’s hiring is the single biggest reason the Red Bulls have gone from classic underachievers to top of the regular-season champions of Major League Soccer.

Longtime superstar Tim Cahill won his first major trophy at the club level thanks to the Red Bulls victory. Cahill has played in two FA Cup Finals and of course was for a long time one of the biggest impact midfielders in English football. Yet it took moving to America to win a trophy and you could tell in the dying moments of the match nobody in the stadium was happier than he was.

The resounding 5-2 victory over Chicago was the shot in the arm the local sport needed in the world’s largest media market. The international game is remarkably popular in the New York media market, but the local/domestic game has been struggling since the early 1980s. The Red Bulls success means so much to developing the market not just locally but nationally.  It also gives Red Bull the boost it needs in a fight for relevance and significance locally against the new upstart NYCFC.

The timing was also perfect considering the Long Island based New York Cosmos clinched the NASL (US second division) fall title this weekend as well. Part of the NASL’s calculation in entering the New York market was that the Red Bulls were a perennially underachieving first division club. The Cosmos have won silverware on their first try, but being in a second division and being on Long Island ultimately undermines the relevance of any achievements they garner while Red Bull is winning.

Many Red Bulls fans felt Don Garber and NASL had it in for their club by pursuing a second New York area club. I would also hear complaints from some of these same fans about the NASL exploiting the New York market by bringing back the Cosmos. But ultimately today that no longer matters. The Red Bulls are the best team in Major League Soccer and now they fight the battle against other New York area teams in both top divisions of North American soccer from a position of strength. Ultimately a strong and healthy Red Bull is a big boost to American soccer, taking the local game to a new level in the most important media market on the planet.

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