It didn’t take long for Tim Cahill to learn the lay of the land after signing with the New York Red Bulls.
Despite being one of the two most recognized Major League Soccer franchises worldwide, the club has long been mired in disappointment and tumult. A hands-off ownership group had, for long stretches, allowed the inmates to run the asylum with little regard of repercussion.
Meanwhile, the fanbase suffered year after year with the promises of success always in sight, but never within reach.
Cahill wanted to change all of that.
“When I first come here, it was a bit shady. I found it difficult,” Cahill said. “There was no harmony, it wasn’t fluid.
“Losing games 3-0, winning 2-1, winning and losing and winning and losing. You can’t play like that,” he explained. “You are better off drawing and playing disciplined. There has to be heart. It wasn’t there at the start.
“It’s not a criticism; it was a fact.”
That fact inspired him to make a change. “If you have a big personality and you want to be heard on the field and off of it,” he explained, “you have to prove to people, win them over.”
And that is where he began his mission. Unlike other Designated Players throughout the league who’s star status put up a glass wall between them and their teammates, Cahill took a different approach. If change would start anywhere, it would be within the club itself – and he would have to be the catalyst.
He immediately made it clear – in the locker room and through the media – that he was no better than any player on the club. For a team that has had it’s share of egos for the better part of the DP era, that was music to the ears of many a Red Bull player.
“I wanted to be that go-to-guy that always stood up on behalf of the team, win or lose,” he said. “It wasn’t to come here as this player on a decent contract to make up the numbers. When I first come here, I put in so much effort.
“Obviously, it’s all about stats here,” he conceded. “Now, it’s about the relationship you build with the teammates first, winning them, and then off the park with the fans and really creating this aura of belief and playing for the badge and putting your body on the line.”
Those aren’t just words. Twice this season, Cahill suffered horrific knee injuries at the end of dubious tackles that seemed designed to take the Australian star down a peg. Both times, he tore ligaments. Both times, he was given a prognosis that would see him miss up to and above a months worth of action.
Both times, he returned to the lineup ahead of schedule.
His drive to return wasn’t a self-indulgent desire to perform. Rather, Cahill saw it as a duty; a part of his grand plan to change the club’s culture by example.
“When you are winning, no one is injured. When you are losing, everybody wants to be injured,” he explains. “There have been so many instances this year where I could have sat out seven games. I didn’t. This defines you as a person and it rubs off.”
Cahill found a kindred spirit in his grand plan this season with the hiring of Mike Petke. Suddenly, his one man mission on the field found a vital, like-minded partner off of it.
“I think the saying is very true,” Cahill says. “You play to the image of your coach. Sometimes it hasn’t been pretty, it hasn’t been great but at the end of the day you know that we’re going to come and battle, we’re going to fight, we’re going to be up for a scrap and that starts with Mike.”
The outcome of their combined efforts has been undeniable. In one short year, the Red Bulls managed to acquire the first major trophy in club history, riding the back of a hard working, blue-collar side with less emphasis on flash and more focus on winning.
“You can see what the players have pulled off this year. The only way you win something is by sticking together,” Cahill notes.. “(Sunday), it proves it’s all about a team. That is one of the most special things I have always been a part of.
“I didn’t come to make up the numbers; I come here to make a real big impact on this league, prove that I come at a good age, that I can play until I am 38, play in another World Cup,” Cahill explained. “The best play together, heart and soul. When you have Thierry (Henry) to pull out them moments, the difference is everyone showed up this year. Everyone put their five cents in.
“That’s the only way to win the Supporters Shield.”