Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What Red Bull New York boss Mike Petke has
accomplished in just his first year as a head coach has been nothing short of
The glaring inexperience in Petke's coaching resume made predicting New York's
final position in the MLS table an incredibly difficult task at the start of
the campaign, but anyone who had the Red Bulls leading the race for the
Supporters' Shield heading into the final round of fixtures would do well to
find a seat on the next flight to Las Vegas.
If the longtime New York defender is not the front-runner for MLS Coach of the
Year, he certainly is on the short list.
Sure, the manner in which Caleb Porter and Marco Schallibaum have transformed
the Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact, respectively, into playoff teams is
impressive, but a first-year coach potentially ending a club's 18-year
silverware drought is one of the more exceptional occurrences in MLS history.
One could look at New York's stacked roster that boasts world-class talents
like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill and opine that Petke has had little work to
do, but do not forget that the squad experienced something of a facelift
during the offseason. Gone is Kenny Cooper, who led the Red Bulls in scoring
last term with 18 goals. Gone is Rafa Marquez, whose tumultuous tenure with
the club was brought to a close when his contract was terminated in December,
even despite his vast playing experience. Gone are Joel Lindpere and Jan
Gunnar Solli, who both exhibited tireless work rates that made them fan
favorites at Red Bull Arena.
The club compensated for these departures by bringing in the likes of Jamison
Olave, Fabian Espindola, Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele, players who are
well-versed in the physicality of MLS and the harsh travel regimen that comes
with playing in America.
But Petke still was responsible for bringing all of these new pieces together
and getting them to jell in minimal time, a difficult task for a coach of any
experience level. That Petke is a novice only adds to the tremendous amount of
credit he deserves.
It was not all smooth sailing, though. There was some pressure on Petke right
off the bat as the Red Bulls began the season with just one win from their
first six games. They also had a very poor spell from June 1 to July 4 when
they lost three games out of four by a combined score of 7-1. Then there were
the rumors of a bust-up between Petke and Henry during a training session at
the end of August in which the two had to be physically separated.
But these instances have proven to be just speed bumps in an otherwise
Petke, who at 37 is only one year older than Henry, has developed an identity
at the club, something that has been missing for quite some time. The Red Bulls
are playing cohesive soccer, moving well off the ball and playing unselfishly.
There have been a handful of dramatic results - New York's 4-3 defeat of Real
Salt Lake on July 27 and the club's 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution
on Oct. 5 spring to mind - that exhibit the team's ability to play until the
final whistle. Petke deserves a great deal of praise for instilling that type
of belief in his squad.
But perhaps the greatest indicator of Petke's success this term is that he is
on the verge of accomplishing what his predecessor could not.
Hans Backe assumed control of the New York managerial duties ahead of the 2010
season on the back of a lengthy tenure across Europe, which included a spell
as an assistant coach at Manchester City as well as successful management
stints at FC Copenhagen, Panathinakos and Notts County.
The concept of a "play-off" system to determine the league champion was as
foreign to Backe as it should have been, given the Swede's European
background. And it is for this reason that Backe stated prior to the 2011
season that achieving the Supporters' Shield would trump an MLS Cup title.
When his approach was questioned by many, Backe stuck to his guns and
reiterated his desire to be the best regular-season team.
"(Yes), I'll stick to that," said Backe at the club's media day in 2011. "I
think when you play 34 games, and if you are number one after 34 games, you
are definitely the best team in (the United States). But, of course, I know
every sport in the U.S. (is) built on playoffs. So it's not that if we are
winning the Shield (and) we are saying, 'No, no, no, we don't like to win the
playoffs.' Of course we want to win the Cup, too. But the main target is to be
the number one team winning the Shield."
Backe never guided New York to the Supporters' Shield during his three-year
tenure as the club finished eight points away from its goal in 2010, 21 points
away in 2011 and nine points away in 2012.
Petke, a newcomer to the coaching scene, is only three points away from
achieving what Backe, a well-versed and experienced European coach, could not.
A win over the Chicago Fire in New York's regular season finale on Sunday
would be enough to clinch the Supporters' Shield and deliver the club's fans
their first taste of silverware in MLS. It would etch Petke's name further
into Red Bull New York lore and likely secure MLS Coach of the Year honors to
cap a sensational season in Harrison, N.J.
Who could have predicted that at the start of the season?
The Sports Network