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The Salt: Mike Petke — and RSL — may have a big problem

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Petke may have landed himself in deep, deep trouble.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake has a problem.

And, it appears, Mike Petke might have a bit of a problem on his hands, too.

After he was suspended by Major League Soccer pending an investigation, I suspect we all went to the tape to see what exactly he did to raise the ire of Major League Soccer.

Let’s talk about it.

What happened first

We’ve already covered the whole ‘a cat ran on the field’ thing, which, for all its weirdness, did lead to some sort-of-kind-of-weird refereeing. Ian wrote about it, and I think it’s well worth a read. In short, there are certainly multiple ways to interpret the laws of the game, and I think the referee was within his rights to call the game the way he did. Besides, he’s under no obligation to add additional time when players from one side — a losing side — are arguing with him.

Really, it’s a shame the narrative ended up the way it did, because I do think RSL put in a very competent performance, and they deserve praise for how they fared in the match. Tigres are no slouch of a club, and we put up a decent fight. I’d even say that we should attribute a fair amount of that to Mike Petke, who looked to have found a good strategy for dealing with Tigres.

But it’s what happened next that’s really the narrative driver here, and probably rightly so.

What happened next

Real Salt Lake players crowded the referee. It wasn’t too aggressive, but it was aggressive enough. Mike Petke unleashed on the fourth official. He then took to the field, pulled his players away, and shouted a few words at the match official, who showed him a red card.

Was it a justified post-match red card for the coach? I don’t know. Petke’s certainly a little aggressive coming in, and he had been much more aggressive with the fourth official. Was he deserving of a red card here? Again, I don’t know, but here’s the problem: This isn’t at all about what he did to get a red card. It’s very much about what he did afterward. And frankly, that we have to push the narrative that direction is again distracting from things much more deserving of our attention.

What happened after the red card

With the referee standing there, not engaging further with the coach, Petke shouts repeatedly at him with what is certainly a profanity-laced tirade. Some of these words you can make out, I think. Some of them — well, I’ve got inklings of some of the things he says, and frankly, they’re not pretty. They’re not becoming of a professional coach. They’re certainly not becoming of a professional coach in his fifth year on the job. The actions themselves are petty, and they’re absolutely not proportionate to being shown a red card.

Petke, in his post-match press conference, said he “told him what (he) felt.” A 20-second stream of vulgarities appears to be how he felt, given the evidence.

This is the third time Petke has been suspended in three years for putting referees on blast. This, however, is the first time he’s been suspended for actions involving a referee in-person, and that, frankly, changes things quite a bit for me. It’s one thing for him to having trouble holding back post-match — we can all relate, in some way.

However, screaming obscenities in the face of a referee is a completely new level. We, of course, don’t know what he said — that’s something I’m sure MLS is very interested in — and we don’t know if anything happened when the teams retreated to the locker room.

What we do know is that Petke behaved in a manner that he shouldn’t. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if he was shown a red card or not, and it certainly doesn’t matter if a famous player got away with some awful on-field behavior in the course of a match, because it’s completely unrelated.

What happens next?

We don’t know yet how long Major League Soccer is going to investigate this, nor do we know what will come of the investigation. It may in part depend on what Petke said. There are certainly witnesses, and I suspect he still had the lapel mic on him. Was it still rolling? Again, I’m sure this is included in the investigation. We may never know. I wish MLS would just tell us everything that goes on, but that’s also not very likely.

What could happen?

This is truly uncharted territory. Not only is this something that took place outside of an MLS match, but it’s also not every day that the league conducts an investigation — at least in a way that they’d have to state it publicly.

In fact, we can easily go through press releases to see when the league has stated that they are conducting an investigation that is not due to a violation of the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program, and also not due to an off-field arrest:

  • Dec. 22, 2017: With New York Red Bulls, Sacha Klestjan was issued a one-match suspension after an “interaction” with stadium security personnel
  • Oct. 21, 2016: With New York City FC, Diego Martinez was accused of using a homophobic slur directed at a ball kid; the league could not corroborate the report, but did ascertain that he used an obscenity

That’s all I’ve got through 2015. There have certainly been others through the years, but needless to say, they’re rare.

So what happens next? I don’t know, but if you’re feeling optimistic for Petke, you might want to take a deep breath and consider the odds that he makes it out of this unscathed. Frankly, I think it’s going to be pretty bad.