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Mike Petke, the pragmatist: Three Questions with Once a Metro

Real Salt Lake’s apparent new coaching hire, Mike Petke, was a New York Red Bulls legend. Austin Fido of Once a Metro helped make sense of his move.

DC United v New York Red Bulls Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

How would you define Mike Petke's coaching style?

Pragmatic. He had big ideas when he started out with RBNY in 2013: a fast and furious 4-3-3 that wasn't all that different in principle from the way the team plays now. But after one game (a 3-3 tie in Portland), he scrapped it in favor of a 4-4-2 that was perhaps a better fit for the aging talents he had on his roster. I occasionally wonder whether that was the first effort to get RBNY to play RalfBall, and whether the decision to abruptly abandon the plan wasn't cleared with Papa Red Bull first. Petke could hardly be fired for winning RBNY's first trophy at the end of 2013, but he was gone as soon as he didn't win another one - and his replacement, Jesse Marsch, is such a firm believer in RalfBall it looks increasingly like he might be edging toward a job in Salzburg.

But back to Petke. We saw his first two seasons as a head coach at the pro level, and that's surely not all he has to offer. But he showed himself to be pragmatic in his first stint at the helm of a pro club. He binned Plan A after Game 1 in 2013, and stuck with a pretty flat 4-4-2 all the way to the Shield. In 2014, that same 4-4-2 didn't work nearly as well, but - conversely - he was very slow to make changes. Eventually, just as RBNY looked like it might be missing out on the playoffs and there were whispers he wouldn't last in his job to the end of the summer, he switched to a 4-2-3-1 that freed up Thierry Henry to play the deeper, left-wing creator role he was increasingly playing regardless of what the formation implied - and, of course, that also amplified BWP's role as the tip of the spear, which he plays exceptionally well. The team was a couple of disgraceful refereeing decisions away from MLS Cup by the end of the season.

You'll find plenty of people close to RBNY who will tell you Petke doesn't have a style at all: he was essentially the figurehead for a tactical brains trust that was mostly Robin Fraser (his assistant at the time) and Thierry Henry. I'm not sure taking the advice of senior and respected colleagues is a bad thing, and I can't think of any coaches who work in isolation from the input of their assistants and veteran players. But maybe it is merely coincidence that as soon as the decision was taken to fire him, faced with a predictably enraged fan base, the club started to let whispers flow to the effect that Petke was a barely competent coach, propped up by a more experienced assistant and a legend of the global game.

He was appointed as a last resort (RBNY was in danger of starting preseason without a head coach and he was pretty much the only coach on the staff at the time), and outperformed every coach who had preceded him in the job. And his prevailing quality at the time appeared to be pragmatism. If I recall correctly, he said he'd learned to back himself a little more during 2013, and maybe that explains why he was so slow to make a fairly obvious change to the tactics in 2014.

The way the team played was mostly decided before he took over: it had Thierry Henry at its heart, supported by the likes of Tim Cahill, Peguy Luyindula, Fabian Espindola, and Bradley Wright-Phillips. The roster he inherited in 2013 drafted in Espindola and Jamison Olave and Jonny Steele because the team wanted to play incisive, creative, passing soccer of the type it associated with RSL under Jason Kreis. And that was always going to be the basic playing style with a squad that had so much invested in its star players. Cahill brought a greater directness to the attack, and was extremely important in 2013 - but it was always Titi's team, and it was always going to play to Titi's strengths. Petke's job was to do what Hans Backe couldn't: turn Titi's team into a title winner. He did his job.

He also showed he can be stubborn, and he wasn't afraid to take on the big personalities around him. Juninho Pernambucano left so quickly you may have forgotten he ever played for RBNY - and he cited his relationship with Petke as one of the reasons he quit the club. Cahill fell out of favor over the course of 2014. Petke even fell out with Henry and benched him on one occasion.

He was never the greatest in-game manager at RBNY. His subs were often predictable; if the game-plan wasn't working, he rarely seemed to have an alternative tactic to deploy. (As it happens, that's also the knock on Jesse Marsch, who seems to be making progress toward more a more flexible, less predictable approach now that he has reached his third season in charge of the team.)

But Petke seemed to be able to get the team focused and firing when it mattered: the run for the Shield in 2013 and the late-season turnaround the year after. And I largely attribute that to what seemed to be a pragmatic devotion to winning by whatever means seemed best suited to the players he had at the time. He inherited a roster in 2013 and figured out a way to make it win, albeit at the expense of some of its bigger names (Espindola also didn't really seem to fit in by the end of the season). And eventually conceded what had worked in 2013 wasn't working in 2014 and, at the very least, got behind a necessary change in tactics. He was a pragmatist with RBNY, first and foremost.

Do you think Mike Petke is the right choice to lead a team that has a strong youth contingent?

Toward the end of the 2014 season, there was a lot of speculation about Henry's departure from the team and what big name would be brought in next to lead the squad. Petke let it be known that he would prefer to focus more on bringing through younger players, maybe take a step away from the "win now" mentality the team had to have with its star-laden roster and develop its own talent at the cost of a season or two of relative struggle. Maybe he'd got wind of Papa Red Bull's preferences (because that is basically what the club started to do once it fired him - just with surprisingly quick results); maybe it was a coach trying to assert himself after a couple of good seasons that he perhaps (mistakenly) thought had earned him a chance to more directly influence the identity of the team.

I believe he has spent much of his time since RBNY working in youth soccer, and he did seem to try to give youth a shot, at least, with the Red Bulls. He started Ruben Bover in his first-ever game as head coach - and Bover was just a 20-year-old whose most extensive minutes as a pro had been with Halesowen Town up to that point. In 2014, he gave Matt Miazga a brief run as a starter when he didn't have many other options, and brought through Chris Duvall and Ambroise Oyongo as regular contributors to the first team.

His brief was always to "win now" and there was no NYRB II in his time as head coach, nor was the club committed to its current model of a common playing style from Academy to first team. He wasn't a coach who really devoted himself to bringing through the kids, but he wasn't at a club that was focused on that either. And he said he'd like to make that more of a priority in the Henry-free seasons he was never allowed to experience.

I can't say whether he's the right choice to lead a young squad - I guess RSL will find out - but I can believe it's a challenge he'd prefer to revisiting the one he's already had of guiding a proven but ageing roster to one more trophy before retirement.

Would you take Mike Petke back if you could?

You ask the tough questions. I think, for me, the answer is no. A very reluctant no, but still a no.

I wouldn't have fired him in 2015. I'm not swayed by the argument that Jesse Marsch is simply a better coach. Whether that is true or not, there were many better coaches than Mike Petke in 2013, but the club chose to appoint a novice and was rewarded with a trophy. Nor was 2014 a failure, just a frustrating (and familiar) stumble at a crucial moment when everything seemed to finally be going right. Petke earned the right to at least another season, and we'll never know how he'd have fared with the benefit of RBNY's newfound commitment to the synergies of Red Bull Global Soccer, RalfBall, and a reserve team in USL.

By the same token, Marsch - whose basic achievements (a Shield and a Conference final in the playoffs in two seasons in charge) are very similar to Petke's - has earned the right to stick around too. So for the same reason I wouldn't have fired Petke, I wouldn't take him back right now. The club made its choice, suffered through the consequences and, though there are still signs of its reflexive volatility (Hi Ali, how are things? Hope you're well, Dax), I think it is better off following through on its current plans with its current leadership than another regime change.

Would I have liked to see what Petke did with RalfBall? Yes. Would I bring him back right now? No.

Of course, if the bridges between him and RBNY haven't all been torched by the circumstances of his departure, and if proves himself an able tactician and leader of a young squad at RSL - well, then he'd be an ideal candidate the next time there's a vacancy at head coach. So maybe I would take him back. But only if he was manifestly qualified for the job, which isn't really your question.

It's no longer 2015 and the mistakes of the past are passed. I'm looking forward to Petke being back in MLS. I'm tired of regretting what might have been and can never be known. RSL in 2017 isn't RBNY in 2015, so the could-haves and would-haves will never really be resolved. But it's time for a new chapter in the Petke-RBNY relationship. If he's a better coach than the Red Bulls thought, I hope he proves that point at RSL. When I'm not rooting for RBNY, I'll be rooting for Mike Petke to pick up where he left off and win whatever trophies won't fit in RBNY's cabinet.