By Ridge Mahoney
It bears a stigma of failure and incompetence, yet in fact Red Bull New York -- to use its proper name -- has a solid record when it comes to making the playoffs.
A 2-2 tie with New England last Saturday attained by a last-second Tim Cahill goal clinched the team’s 10th postseason appearance in the last 11 years. The postseason, of course, is a dire subject. One MLS Cup appearance -- a 3-1 loss to Columbus in 2008 -- isn’t much to show for the staggering sums spent on Designated Players and construction of Red Bull Arena, which opened in 2010. Seasons that begin with promise and hope usually end amid recrimination and disappointment.
New York won the Eastern Conference crown (15-9-6) in 2010 but stumbled in the first round of the playoffs against San Jose. After missing the playoffs in 2011, New York rebounded last year with a record of 16-9-9, tied for fourth-best overall but third in the Eastern Conference. It fell out of the playoffs in the first round again, this time to D.C. United.
This playoff clinching feels a bit different. New York is the first team to lock down a postseason spot, and as such sits atop the overall standings at 15-9-8. For the first time in a long time, or perhaps ever, the Red Bulls are tenacious as well as talented. Veterans plucked from other MLS teams -- Jonny Steele, Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave, Eric Alexander, Dax McCarty, Kosuke Kimura -- are doing the work and filling the roles so DPs Thierry Henry and Cahill can shine. Luis Robles has been consistent in the nets.
When the head coach benched Henry after a training-ground spat, his command was established. As evidenced by a raucous soldout crowd for the Revs game, fans chafed by despair are more willing to dream of better times with a former, hard-driven defender in charge.
“I can’t say enough about our fan base, particularly the South Ward, the main supporters’ section,” praises Head Coach Mike Petke, whose hiring last January brought his alliance with the fans full circle. “These guys have been around, most of them, since I was there in ’98.
“You look at our record over the years and some would say there’s not a lot to be proud of or cheer about, whether it’s hardware and trophies, so to see the same people there with the loyalty they have is unbelievable.”
Petke, a native of Boehmia, N.Y., started his playing career with the MetroStars in 1998 and finished with the Red Bulls in 2010. In between, he won a 2004 MLS Cup with D.C. United (after he swapped clubs and places with Eddie Pope), backstopped the Colorado Rapids defense for three seasons, and earned two caps with the national team.
Hired as an assistant coach, Petke worked two seasons under Hans Backe. Losing to United terminated the Backe Era. Weeks dragged on without a replacement. The New Year came and went. As interim head coach at the 2013 SuperDraft in Indianapolis, Petke talked like a long-term solution even though he says the job hadn’t been discussed, much less offered.
“At that point -- when I spoke to you -- was before I’d even entertained a slight possibility in my mind,” says Petke. “When I was asked to be the interim manager, the farthest thing from my mind was getting the full-time gig, and that’s the God-honest truth. I’m being very truthful.”
Once the possibility arose, Petke -- one of the league’s youngest head coaches at 37 -- sought out counsel. He discussed the move with his wife, Kim, a former soccer player who had worked at MLS headquarters. (“When she met me I had the blond hair, the nose ring. I was in the second year of my career and I was a bit wild.”) A former MetroStars teammate of some repute offered his advice.
“I wish I could tell you I had great advice for Mike but I really could not,” says former U.S. international Tab Ramos, a New Jersey native and avowed Red Bull fan who coaches the U.S. under-20 national team. “I did know it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. At the same time I knew it would be a difficult situation for him and he has handled it as well or better than anyone could have imagined.
“Mike knew that he was going into a very difficult situation, especially as a first-time coach and if you take some of the personalities on the Red Bulls’ team. It’s not easy and it’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about being able to manage the team as a group and getting everybody to buy into your ideas.”
Petke admits he started off as a stone-cold micro-manager, but soon found the confidence to rely on his first coaching hire, ex-U.S. international Robin Fraser, and the rest of a staff overseen by sporting director Andy Roxburgh. Formerly coach of the Scottish national team and a FIFA instructor, Roxburgh headed the coaching search that led to Petke after overtures to Gary MacAlister and Paulo Sousa fell through.
“Robin Fraser was an assistant coach on a championship team in this league, had a very good [playing] career, and was a head coach in this league,” says Petke. “Having him right there is very valuable to me, the ideas that we bounce off each other and the experience that he brings. Then you have Andy Roxburgh sitting above me, who has all the world experience. I’ve become like a sponge, taking in everything that I can.”
To get away from the job, Petke spends time with Kim and their two sons. He also finds time to play indoor soccer at Ramos’ facility in Aberdeen Township, N.J. “It’s about 10 minutes from my house,” laughs Petke. “I come off the bench, man. I’m a guy who likes to observe a little bit, see who we’re playing, and come in and play one- and two-touch.
“The only stipulation that I have with them is never to play defense. I served my time as a defender. I want to score goals now.” And maybe a few trophies, too, in his day job.