At the end of December 2016, Real Monarchs made an announcement that was possibly one of the most surprising of the offseason: the hiring of former NYRB head coach Mike Petke to lead the USL side into their third season.
It was a shocking acquisition to be sure, but one that will almost certainly have a positive effect on the entire RSL organization. That’s not because I’m hoping that Jeff Cassar gets fired and Petke takes his place (though that thought is in the dreams of many RSL supporters), nor is it a jab at what Freddy Juarez did as the Monarchs first manager. It has more to do with what the effect is of bringing an experienced and highly successful leader to take charge of managing the developmental playing time of the future stars of the team.
When you look around the world at the various so-called reserve clubs, not many have a manager of Petke’s caliber. Juarez is a very capable coach and a good teacher and developer of young talent, which he showed over several years at the RSL-AZ Academy. If you attended a Monarchs match over the last two seasons, you could see and sometimes hear how involved Freddy got as he urged his players to understand the tactics, and improve following mistakes.
There were often glimpses of brilliance, but not often did it seem like the team was going to reach the top of the USL table. That’s not usually the point of a reserve squad playing in a lower tier of soccer, and Petke has said that while he wants to win games and possibly silverware, his focus is on preparing players to make the jump to MLS. It’s the right thing to say, but I think the potential is there to see a vast improvement in the success of the team this season.
I’m not going to predict a USL Championship this year, in fact I’d agree with Petke that player progression shouldn’t be sacrificed to win games. Much like a Double-A baseball team isn’t necessarily supposed to be dominating their league, any USL team affiliated with an MLS team is more about players improving than anything else. Your ace pitcher or star centerfielder shouldn’t be playing two levels down, nor should the next MLS Golden Boot Winner be kicking around USL pitches. If they are that good, they need a different contract, and minutes in MLS.
Even if Petke’s focus is on development, he’s a manager who directed a very impressive roster to two very successful seasons at NYRB. Tactically this should be a vastly improved Monarchs squad to watch, and with 5 substitutions to make in USL matches Petke has the ability to adjust to any situation he encounters. In training and during games he will demand a different level from these players than what we’ve seen in the past, and is someone who will earn the respect and loyalty that he needs to hold the team accountable. The team already has wins in their first 4 preseason matches, and while you have to take that with the appropriate grain of salt, it feels like this team is already coming together faster than in past years, and buying into the system under the new leadership.
It’s also worth mentioning that having a coach like Petke will change the interaction that RSL players who spend time on loan with the Monarchs will have with the team. Though I don’t like to think that players haven’t taken the assignment seriously in the past, they will have a harder time of that with Petke at the helm. Not only is it more difficult to feel like you are being “demoted” while playing for someone who is essentially a MLS coach, Petke doesn’t come across as someone who will tolerate less than a full effort.
The end result should be a much stronger and more consistent Monarchs team, as well as a deeper integration of the reserves with their first-team counterparts. Ultimately, it’s a move that greatly strengthens the whole organization by elevating the pieces which represent the foundation on which the future success of RSL will be built.