The Throw-In: Friendship of Mike Petke, Ben Olsen set for test in New York Red Bulls vs. DC United
It’s one of those fun aspects that are almost unique to sports: When the whistle blows, even the best of friends become instant enemies.
Good pals for nearly 20 years, both men had also been adversaries during their MLS careers. Olsen, the face of D.C. United and now their head coach. Petke, a longtime MetroStar/New York Red Bull (and, for a brief time, a teammate of Olsen’s in Washington).
But on this day in late January, Petke had just found himself named head coach of his former club. He wasn’t their first choice – or their second choice. But he was their best choice. And all of a sudden, he was living through a nearly identically difficult transition from former player, to assistant coach, to interim head coach, to head coach, that Olsen went through three years ago.
And his head was swimming a bit, he admits. Luckily, Olsen was there to give him some sage advice.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Get out now,’” Petke (at right) recounts to MLSsoccer.com with a giggle. “‘Don’t take the job. It’ll take your soul.’”
Olsen was joking – mostly. But he knew exactly what his buddy was going through. Three years ago, he, too, had been interim head coach after a firing and was openly told he wasn’t his club’s first choice for the top job. Like Petke, he had also stood by while his team contacted a host of other candidates, only eventually to land the gig after the club reevaluated.
He also knew what it was like to carry the weight of expectations of a club with whom his very name is associated – the walking embodiment of everything that club represents. Now, all of a sudden, he and Petke were living parallel lives.
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On Saturday, they will meet for the first time as head coaches when Petke’s Red Bulls host Olsen’s United (12:30 pm ET, NBC, live chat on MLSsoccer.com). That match will mark the rare first time in MLS history that two friends will lead the clubs with whom they spent the bulk of their careers into battle.
And that’s going to be a very cool moment. When you think of D.C. United, you cannot separate Olsen’s name from the capital club. He spent every season of his 11-year career with the Black-and-Red, literally bleeding for them and winning eight major trophies in the process.
Meanwhile, perhaps no former New York player knows the suffering of the organization more than Petke. A native of Long Island, he spent the majority of his 13-year career in New Jersey and lived through moment after moment of last-second misery for his beloved club. His very accent gives it away: He is a New York guy through and through.
Well, except for the moment he was part of a megadeal that sent him to D.C. in exchange for Eddie Pope, Jaime Moreno and Richie Williams back in 2003. In fact, that’s where his friendship with Olsen grew. The two knew each other through their brief encounters back in college, as well as in various levels of the US youth national team program.
But when Petke suddenly found himself dealt to his nemesis club, he also suddenly found himself without a place to live. In stepped Olsen, who let his newest teammate stay at his house while he was away with the national team.
When he came back a week later, the bleach-blond defender (at right) was still there.
“He was a good houseguest,” Olsen recalls to MLSsoccer.com. “He kept pretty neat. But he kept trying to stay an extra week. We had to kick him out.”
When you talk to both men, you realize how similar their personalities are. They’re both friendly and easy-going, sometimes so sarcastic that you can’t really tell if they’re serious and with a biting wit that can disarm you in a second.
On the field, both were blue-collar players, real lunch-pail types who didn’t care about figuring into the highlights – or the frequent booking – as long as they were helping their team win. All those things in common added up to true chemistry as friends.
They don’t talk on the phone every day, but they’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs. Petke was there to listen when Olsen battled with his own ascension to head coach during D.C.’s down cycle of 2010 and ’11, and caught up with him frequently during the Red Bulls’ road trips down to Washington.
When Petke got his turn, Olsen knew he had to return the favor. And then some.
“Yeah, I think he does have it harder than me,” the Harrisburg, Pa., native says. “When I took over, we were a pretty poor team. The expectations were pretty low. I had a year to disassemble the team and get the guys I wanted. The expectations for [the Red Bulls] are very different. It’s the highest-profile job in the league with even higher expectations.”
Such as, fighting a history of never winning a single major trophy. And arguably the most star-studded roster in MLS to manage on top of it with big names like Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and probably a third big-name Designated Player this summer. And an increasingly impatient front office and fan base to go with them, knowing that continued failure is not an option. All you gotta do is be the first to break the curse, Mike. No pressure. But at least you’ve got a buddy who gets it, 100 percent.
“I don’t want to get too preachy,” Olsen (at right) says, “because I’m still walking that line, too, dealing with ups and downs on how to manage this profession even three years in. I told him, ‘Don’t forget that you’re not the center of the universe, and smile every now and then.’”
Olsen believes Petke will do just fine and is the man for the job. It may not be fun at times – he knows firsthand what it’s like to see a fan base for whom you could do no wrong in their eyes suddenly turn against you. But he knows Petke better than perhaps any coach in the league. And both agree that no matter the outcome, Saturday will mark a special moment in the long history of the Atlantic Cup rivalry.
“Come game time, knowing Ben’s personality and mine, there will be no love lost for that 90 minutes,” Petke says before a long pause. “By the way, when you write this, add that Ben is the hairiest man in MLS. He’s got hair growing on his hair.”
When told of his, Olsen laughs.
“Remind him that when we played together [in D.C. from 2003-05], they had to put me in front of him because he’s too slow,” the former midfielder says. “I had to make up for his deficiencies as an athlete.”
This sort of silly banter does not become the often-bitter Atlantic Cup rivalry. But man, it sure is going to make it more fun.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.