By Paul Gardner
Well, now, here's a surprise. Mike Petke as the coach of the Red Bulls. Then again, maybe not. We’ve seen this sort of appointment before: administrators who get in over their heads, flounder around looking for a coach -- without really knowing what they’re looking for -- then panic as some sort of deadline nears and do the easy thing by turning to a “trusted servant.”
That person will be someone who’s been with the club for a while, of course -- hence little upheaval, no time wasted on his “getting to know” people or the club or the league.
The process reflects little credit on those making the appointment -- in this case the Red Bull management crew. But it should not be taken as a criticism of the guy they appoint: Mike Petke.
Of course Petke can be seen as a desperation choice, a last resort as time runs out. Not that the Red Bulls will admit any such thing, far from it: “Mike is very passionate about our club and has shown us that he has the leadership and organizational qualities to be our head coach” -- those are the words of the Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh.
What Roxburgh is saying about Petke may well be true -- but coming from Roxburgh, the words do not ring true. If Roxburgh’s praise is to be believed, why was Petke not appointed as soon as Backe was fired, months back?
Nor does it help that we have Roxburgh, whose association with the Red Bulls started only a short while back, passing a suitability judgment on Petke, who has served the club for years as both player and assistant coach. Petke “will have the full support of our staff to help ensure the team’s success” says Roxburgh, making that sound like a generous bonus, when it is surely the least that the club could offer.
So be it. Whatever the shortcomings of the Red Bulls’ selection process and however many the question marks that dangle over Petke’s head, it seems to me that a correct decision has been made.
A young American has been appointed, and recent experience in the league has shown us that this is no bad thing. Jason Kreis at Real Salt Lake and Ben Olsen at D.C. United have both produced successful teams playing eminently watchable soccer. Jay Heaps at New England is working to that end, and I thought Jesse March was doing good work at Montreal. All four, like Petke, are former MLS players.
Can Petke emulate their success? Hesitantly, I’ll say Yes to that question. If I have doubts, they are, it seems to me, doubts that can be dispelled, doubts that rest on what may well be my shallow assessment of Petke’s personality. Because Petke has always come over to me as a “yet-to-mature” young man (I’m avoiding the word “immature,” which is too harsh a judgment). A pleasant, smiling, not quite serious young man ... one prone to make judgment errors in his playing days. I felt they were the errors of a youngster learning his profession, but they seemed to go on for too long.
But that judgment can hardly be reconciled with the belief of Roxburgh that Petke is ready to be a head coach. And Roxburgh, after 18 years as UEFA’s Technical Director, has tremendous experience in assessing the qualities of coaches. Experience that, once his misguided preference for a foreign coach had been overcome, directed Roxburgh to Petke.
What appeals to me most about Petke is that he is from a new generation. The Bulls have had American coaches before in Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, arguably the two top Americans -- but neither of them ever played in MLS. And neither had any success at the Red Bulls. They were the pioneers, but their generation is now, gracefully one hopes, on its way out.
Petke, of course, faces a hell of a challenge, and it is one that has an almost personal edge to it. He is in charge now of a club that has always underperformed, that has always disappointed, that has always managed to screw up the big occasions. A club that, despite its potential and its pretensions, is not taken seriously. Seventeen years devoid of titles -- and this is supposed to be a New York team?
Just as Petke has now to prove that his appointment is one to be taken seriously, he has simultaneously to take a team that has become a joke and turn it into one that is respected, one that can win a title or two.
Can he, a rookie coach, do that? Who knows -- but I’m glad he’s getting the chance, glad that the Bulls (probably for the wrong reasons) took the plunge of making a daring appointment.
P.S. Just one thing, Mike -- that first statement of yours, the one about building “a hard-working team” ... could we have a quote about being skillful and lively, about the building of a team that will be something that MetroStars and Red Bulls past have rarely been ... enjoyable and watchable?