Mike Petke has only just turned 38 and he is a single year into his managerial career. His New York Red Bulls predecessors were mostly big-time, big-name, big-money luminaries who have combined to take 17 national teams to the World Cup. Yet in the club’s 18-year history, no head coach has been more successful. By posting the best regular season record, earning the MLS Supporters’ Shield, Petke, the team’s scrappy long-time defender, outdid them all in 2013. He won the only major trophy in the franchise’s fraught existence.
But it isn’t enough. In New York, and for its embodiment in Petke – feisty, demanding, handsome and ambitious – it’s never enough.
"Never enough," echoed Petke in a recent sit-down interview with FOX Soccer. "How many championships did the Yankees win? And all of a sudden they don’t make the playoffs one year and the whole city is up in arms. It’s just the way New York is. I like that – I really do. Because at the end of the day everybody needs some pressure to perform."
With the spell broken, there will be plenty of that this year. Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh lays out his expectations plainly and openly when asked: the Supporters Shield, the MLS Cup, the US Open Cup and the final stages of the CONCACAF Champions League. Oh, and higher attendance.
An unlikely haul, perhaps. But it’s no more unlikely than Petke’s journey from Long Island – he pronounces his hometown "Nu Yo-wahk" – to Division II Southern Connecticut State to the MetroStars in 1998. Making just $24,000 and living in his grandmother’s house, he would coast his car down the bridges to New Jersey to save on gas during the commute to practice. His dogged pursuit allowed him to carve out a 13-year MLS career – including seven years with the Metrostars and then the re-branded Red Bulls – and reject a chance to play in Germany along the way.
He was hard and scrappy and free of frills. He still is. "He epitomizes everything the club stands for," midfielder Tim Cahill said. "He takes it personally. He takes it home with him and he relays that across to the players."
But while staying true to himself and the fans’ love for no-nonsense soccer, Petke has learned and adapted a great deal. He looks calmer now than he did before his maiden season. He’s figured out some things. He’s wiser. When ideology collides with reality, for instance, the latter must win out.
Petke learned his fair share of lessons from the errors of the past and the experiences in the present.
"We threw out the idea of being Barcelona," said Petke, who had announced that Red Bull would be playing the pretty sort of soccer upon his appointment."That was my first couple of weeks in my first job. I was excited and hopped up and I learned a huge lesson. You have to work with what you have. At the end of the day, the way of playing we transferred to was the best thing that fit us and it paid dividends at the end." It really did. A much more effective counter-attacking style turned around the team’s four-game winless streak to start the season. They went 17-7-6 the rest of the way.
"It became apparent that it wasn’t going to work with the personnel that we had," he added. "I fought it and fought it and finally gave in. My view of style and playing has changed dramatically as well as the whole formation thing – those are just numbers."
There were other lessons. For one, you can’t prepare for mistakes. Like the ones that let the Houston Dynamo back into the Eastern Conference semifinals after New York took a 2-0 half-time lead in the first leg on the road. New York was ultimately beaten in extra time of the second leg. "We made two or three personal brain lapses, mistakes. It cost us," says Petke. "Listen, I was a defender in this league for 13 years. I would need 25 hands to count the number of mental mistakes that I made that cost goals. It happens."
But he concedes that his team wasn’t as sharp as it might have been. "Winning Supporters’ Shield the week before, all of the emotions that went into that, how much of a high we were on, perhaps it was a bit tough for me to get them back up," says Petke. A lesson.
"Also, there was one lineup decision that I made in the second game – different from the first game – that I really wish I went back and didn’t do," Petke continued. "Things like that you’re always second-guessing yourself but you learn from it." Petke wouldnât name names. But Peguy Luyindula’s removal from the lineup before that game – which he didn’t enter until the 106th minute – was startling, considering his four assists in the previous three games. Another lesson.
This off-season, Petke went to Europe to learn more things. On a swing through London, he sat down with Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger, West Ham United’s Sam Allardyce and England’s Roy Hodgson. (Meetings with Chelsea’s José Mourinho and Tottenham’s Andre Villas-Boas fell through.) He picked their brains and talked to them for hours, mostly about preparation, "just to get insights."
But the biggest thing he learned was something he already knew. It had eaten at him during his two spells with the club, as both a player and in his 2-year stint as an assistant coach to his predecessor Hans Backe. As a club mainstay, Petke is an anomaly. No fewer than 274 different players have made an appearance for New York in its 18 seasons. That’s a turnover of more than 15 players per season.
"We want to be stable," Roxburgh said. "We desperately wanted some continuity."
In a rather marked departure from the past, the Red Bulls’ regime made continuity a priority during the offseason.
During the first player meeting of the season, Petke and Roxburgh arranged the tables in a U-shape. Then they pointed out that the number of familiar faces was deliberate.
"For the first time since I’m here, I actually know who the guys are in the dressing room," forward Thierry Henry said. "Usually, you have 10 players leaving and 10 coming. But teams that are consistent in this league throughout the years are the teams that [stay] together."
"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out [defending MLS champions Sporting] Kansas [City]’s success, [Real] Salt Lake’s, Houston’s," added Cahill. "The change had to happen or it would have been the same thing happening over and over again where there would be 60 players coming in three years. The stats before I came were unimaginable and something that wasn’t acceptable."
In Petke’s first three years on the team, the turnover rate was higher than that of all other MLS teams combined. He understands why it happened. "In any sport here in New York, it’s all about winning, winning, winning," he said. "I can’t fault so much all the turnover that we had because they [the investor/operators back in Austria] want to win now. But this is the way I see it happening."
Tackling a problem so endemic to the franchise – and its rampant underperformance – is an accomplishment Petke says heâs prouder of than winning the Supporters’ Shield. Because it better positions the club for the future. For more winning.
Petke has won something in New York. Now he wants to win more. And then more still. Until not winning things is considered an aberration, an all-out crisis.
How many championships did the Yankees win? And all of a sudden they don’t make the playoffs one year and the whole city is up in arms. It’s just the way New York is. I like that – I really do. Because at the end of the day everybody needs some pressure to perform.
New York coach Mike Petke on the pressure to win titles with the Red Bulls.