You won’t find bigger fans of Mike Petke than the ones currently roaming the gleaming corridors of the Backpost World Headquarters. We love the guy. New York’s alltime leader in games played, he’s charismatic, hard-working, and was a damn good MLS center back.
He bookended his career with stints in New York, starting with the MetroStars in 1998 before moving on to DC United (where he won the 2004 MLS title) and Colorado (which he helped lead to the 2005 Western Conference final) and then returning to the rebranded Red Bulls in 2008.
He was a three-time MLS All-Star, he earned two caps for the U.S. national team, and he has a fantastic Long Island accent. Petke is aces back-to-back.
So why are we a little lukewarm on his hiring?
For starters, he was clearly the team’s third choice, at best. The Red Bulls courted former Portugese international Paulo Sousa, Scottish veteran Gary McAllister, and possibly several others if reports are to be believed (Eric Wynalda? Tony Meola? Paul Lambert?), while Petke was a placeholder “interim” coach following Hans Backe’s dismissal in early November.
There’s definitely an element of, “Oh, crap, all our choices have fallen through, and the season is just about to start—Mike, the job is yours.” (Or, to put it another way, the Red Bulls are the squirrel in this clip, and the impending season is the leopard.)
Then there’s the question of Petke’s experience, and his temperament. He has two seasons under his belt as an assistant to Backe, and he also comes across as kind of a good-time guy. He’s not a loose cannon (like Wynalda), but he doesn’t radiate gravitas, exactly.
That may not be a problem: several recent MLS alums have entered the league’s managerial ranks without a ton of coaching experience (or an especially imposing presence) and done quite well, including Jason Kreis (RSL) and Ben Olsen (DC United), or not half-bad, in the cases of Jay Heaps (New England) and Jesse Marsch (Montreal).
(Yes, Marsch was fired, and Heaps’ team finished 9-17-8, but both had their sides playing entertaining soccer, and Marsch’s dismissal was arguably unfair, while Heaps’ team was sunk by a midseason slump.)
A third issue, and possibly the most significant one, is how Petke will handle the locker-room–sized ego of the Red Bulls’ most important player, Thierry Henry. Here’s Petke on that subject at Thursday’s press conference:
“I’ve had two years now to get to know Thierry, and I didn’t think anyone was as competitive as I was, but he made me look like my 5-year-old son. Whether it’s Ping-Pong or the World Cup final, he’s playing to win. I put him in the same category as guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in that respect. I have a preexisting relationship with him. There’s nothing to be coddled with these players. I’m going to treat them like men.”
It will be interesting to watch.
On the positive side, Petke knows MLS and the club far better than any European candidate would have, and he’s certainly well-liked by the current roster. Here’s RBNY technical director Andy Roxburgh on those issues:
“He’s charismatic, he’s well organized and he gets the respect of the players. What’s very important in all of this is that Mike is very experienced in terms of the MLS. If you brought a coach in from Europe, he might be experienced in Europe, but he would be totally inexperienced here in the U.S. Mike starts with an enormous advantage because he knows everybody, he knows the league and he’s absolutely passionate about the club.
Forget the irony that Roxburgh just spent close to 11 weeks trying to bring in a coach from Europe, and he has a point. Petke will be able to hit the ground running in a lot of areas where a foreign coach would’ve been playing catch-up. So there’s that.
Stay tuned to see who comes in as his assistants, and in the meantime, here’s a clip of Petke scoring the second goal ever struck at Red Bull Arena, in an exhibition against Santos (with Neymar on the field) in March 2010: