Tim Cahill leaves for China as a murky MLS icon

Tim Cahill, public relations expert and occasional midfielder with Red Bull New York, has found new employment. It was announced today that he and the club have parted ways “by mutual agreement,” a phrase that’s one of the greatest tools of deception for media departments. Rarely in human history have two parties decided, at the same time, that it would be mutually beneficial to split, especially when millions of dollars are at stake. We tell our friends “it was mutual” when we’re six beers deep the night after we get dumped.

In the case of Tim Cahill and the Red Bulls, however, it’s probably true:

“This decision was not made lightly, and it is the result of many conversations between our staff, Tim, and his agent,” said Red Bulls Sporting Director Ali Curtis. “After much deliberation, we have agreed that this decision is best for all involved. We thank Tim for his service to the organization. He positively impacted the growth of the beautiful game in the United States, MLS and for the Red Bulls. We are pleased that Tim will continue to be an ambassador for Red Bull moving forward.”

The Red Bulls are very much in transition and probably have no desire to bring back Cahill for the $3.6 million he was paid in 2014. New sporting director Ali Curtis has made it clear that the team intends to be younger and less expensive, and a slumping 35-year-old who never had a clear position didn’t align with Curtis’s now-infamous 300-page vision for New York.

Despite his slumping form in club play, Cahill was still (according to the transfer rumors his agent was floating) somewhat of a sought after commodity. Now, it appears that he headed to China to suit up for Shanghai Shenhua.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment of my time at the Red Bulls and leave with great memories,” said Cahill. “I joined with the ambition of helping to grow and positively affect soccer in the US and I feel immensely proud of what we achieved as a team during my time in the MLS. Winning the Supporter’s Shield, was without doubt, one of the best moments I have experienced in my career and I am now looking forward to my next chapter, of which I will announce in due course.”

Now that it’s over, we can reflect. Cahill’s time in New Jersey will be remembered for three things: peaks, valleys and a perfectly cultivated public image.

Cahill struggled to find his footing after arriving in July of 2012, but the following year, after another slow start, he experienced a late season turn-around that earned him team MVP and MLS Best XI honors. He also helped lead New York to its first major honor – the 2013 Supporter’s Shield.

DC United v New York Red Bulls - Eastern Conference Semifinals

He was trumpeted as the true leader of the team, despite the fact that Henry wore the armband. Fans and media often pitted images of the two against each other. Cahill was viewed as hard-working and dedicated, yet still affable, where Henry was made into a snarling caricature of himself. Tim was seen as the lamb to Thierry’s lion, when in reality, the main difference between the two was that Cahill cared about public perception.

Every quote he delivered was a flawless recitation from the athlete’s guide to canned press conferences. It was like one of the Gladiators from Scandal was whispering platitudes through an ear piece for him to deliver to the cameras. He spun gold saying he was always team-first, or he would never put himself above the team – the sort of latent narcissism that initially made it past most fans’ smell tests.

In 2014, that veneer began to fade. Fans questioned Cahill’s commitment to the club as he missed matches for international friendlies on the other side of the globe. Though neither would admit it publicly, a rift developed between Cahill and Petke. As his time away revealed that the team performed better in his absence, Petke reduced his role, to positive results.

As time passed and Cahill continued to struggle with New York, clusters of fans began to see through the fog. Cahill’s brand started to see cracks as a frustrating campaign to defend the Shield bore more criticism. He began to push back. His natural ego — a fair and necessary thing for a top athlete to have — began to creep into public persona, but after two years of playing the Superman role, it was perceived negatively.

With the announcement that he is off to China, Cahill won’t only be remembered as vital contributor New York’s first silverware. To many, his lasting impression will be that of a player who didn’t want to be with the team, and was either disingenuous about it at the end or changed his mind as soon as things got difficult.

In time, this will probably change. Few supporters remember the negativity that surrounded the exit of Juan Pablo Ángel, who has since been restored to his saintly status. For now, there are many fans who aren’t sad to see Cahill go.

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