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Can Mike Petke lift Red Bulls curse?

Mike Petke, New York Red Bulls
Mike Petke was appointed head coach of New York Red Bulls in January.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Mike Petke covered his face with his hand. The New York Red Bulls, the club he'd first joined in 15 years ago and was now finally in charge of, had just bossed around D.C. United, outshooting their rivals 24-4 -- and failed to break a 0-0 stalemate. As the final whistle rang out, the boos and snow flurries fluttered down on Red Bull Arena in equal measure. Turning around the most dysfunctional franchise in Major League Soccer might be even harder than even Petke could have suspected.

This team is supposed to be cursed, after all. In their first-ever home game, back when they were the Metrostars, defender Nicola Caricola bungled the ball into his own net as time ran out, giving the New England Revolution a 1-0 win. No evidence has ever materialized to dispel the so-called "Curse of Caricola."

This season has seen more of the same old hex: the Red Bulls were unlucky to give away leads in their first two games. They hit the crossbar twice in the third and remained winless. "You have those days," Petke said after the game in his heavy, bassy voice after the game. "It sucks."

There have been a lot of "those days" in the history of this franchise. It was meant to be one of MLS's leading teams as one of the league's originals in 1996. And all other MLS teams combined haven't employed so many well-known head coaches as the Red Bulls; Carlos Queiroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Bora Milutinovic, Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and Hans Backe just to name a few. Not one of them won a thing in New York.

Into that breach now steps Petke, 37, who spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach under Backe after retiring as a player. A fiery defender who once promised that "Revenge is Coming" on a T-shirt underneath his game jersey after a teammate was badly injured by an opponent, Petke had an unlikely journey into the pros.

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Petke was not a Division I player – he came out of DII Southern Connecticut State, but had the fortune to be coached by Ray Reid, now the title-winning head coach at the University of Connecticut. Still, when Petke signed with the Metrostars in 1998, it was viewed as a coup for SCSU’s program, and the defender was something of a wild card. It was hardly the road to riches: as a rookie, the native Long Islander made just $24,000 and had to live in his grandmother’s house.

To save money, he coasted his car down bridges into New Jersey, where fuel was cheaper, on the way to practice. He famously ran out of gas halfway across the George Washington… while he was being interviewed by a New York Times reporter. The two of them had to push it over.

"Between gas and tolls and everything it was paycheck to paycheck," recalls Petke.

With all that in mind, one would think that when, in 2000, he was offered an incentive-laden contract by the Bundesliga’s Kaiserslautern, that Petke would have jumped at it. Petke turned it down.

"I know my qualities and I know my negatives and I couldn't see myself being a mainstay in their lineup," Petke says. Besides, he was happy with the Metrostars. He stayed two more seasons, was traded to United, where he won a championship in 2004. He subsequently was traded to the Colorado Rapids in 2005 and only in 2009 did he re-sign with New York (now re-christened the Red Bulls) for a two-year swan song.

When Backe’s contract wasn’t extended following the 2012 season, lots of big European names were rumored to succeed him. None signed. In January, Petke was named head coach. "I wasn't expecting it," he says. "It wasn't on my mind at all. I was a bit surprised." He’d unofficially been in charge since the Red Bulls got bounced in the first round of the playoffs in early November, and he’d been watched closely by new sporting director Andy Roxburgh.

His love for the club was such that he didn’t hesitate. "When I was offered the job, by the time the words, 'How would you like to coach the Red Bulls?' was mouthed, my hand was already across the table to shake theirs," says Petke. “They said, 'We haven't even discussed money or length,' but I put my hand out again. This is my club, it's one of the most important things in my life and I want more than anything for it to succeed."

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His hiring went down well in the locker room. "In the back of your head you say, 'It would be great if Mike Petke got hired, because he's the type of guy that you really want to play for as a player,'"said midfielder Dax McCarty. "Because he's passionate and he loves this club."

"He's a guy that brings a lot of intensity to the game and to the team," said defender Heath Pearce. "When he got hired we were all pretty excited."

Now the task looms tall. After seventeen years, the club has no identity to speak of. Petke hopes to develop a playing style that embraces risk, to reflect the Red Bull brand, yet satisfies the fan base’s desire for toughness. "The character I want my team to show is Rocky against Apollo Creed, 11th round, getting pummeled but not going down," Petke says with a chuckle.

And if that isn’t enough of a challenge, something must be won. And soon. "I understand very clearly how much pressure is on me," Petke says. "I'm a young head coach in the largest market in MLS for a team that has not won anything in its history. A team that has the best stadium, the best facilities, the best owners but has nothing really to show for it. It's not an easy thing, or all the coaches throughout the history of this team who have coached in World Cups would have figured out a way long before I was tasked to do it."

Oh, and then there’s that curse to deal with, which seemed to have struck again recently. "Our first two games we got our planes canceled and had to leave the next morning," says Petke.

But that’s okay, Petke says. "I like things to come a little difficult to me."

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