Looking back: Mike Petke
"Because the players are always changing...you're actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it."
- Jerry Seinfeld
For D.C. United fans, those words were never more apt than in the case of Mike Petke. As a member of the MetroStars, he was a frequent target of derision from the supporters clubs for five years before becoming a fan favorite shortly after arriving in Washington.
I have to admit that, even when he played for the MetroStars, I couldn't help but like Petke. No matter how indifferently the Metros often played, particularly in his first two years of 1998 and 1999, Petke always played with a lot of emotion. Although his frustrations sometimes seemed to get the better of him, such as the August 11, 1999 game against United when he was sent off for kissing the ball following a questionable foul, his effort was never questioned.
Petke came to United via 'The Trade'. On December 23, 2002, Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope and Richie Williams, were sent to the MetroStars for Petke, an allocation (used to acquire Galin Ivanov), and the fifth overall pick in the 2003 SuperDraft (used to acquire David Stokes). If losing three of the four remaining players from United's early championship teams wasn't bad enough, now United fans had to root for a player who, as the all-time leader in games played for the Metros, had effectively come to symbolize everything we disliked about our biggest rivals.
But Petke said all the right things - that he had had a great time in New Jersey, but those days were in the past and he was looking forward to playing for United. A few weeks later, at a viewing party for a U.S. national team friendly, he won many of us over by having a great sense of humor about all the abuse he took from us over the years.
Any further doubts about his commitment to his new team were erased 36 minutes into his D.C. United career. In the season opener at Kansas City, Petke pounced on a loose ball following a free kick to score United's first goal of the 2003 campaign. That year, Petke, paired in central defense with Ryan Nelsen and was part of a backline that season that gave up a team-record low 1.20 goals per game.
The native of Bohemia, N.Y., used his 6'2" frame to good advantage on set pieces. He didn't score many goals, but it seemed like the ones he scored were all clutch. His equalizer deep into stoppage time against Columbus on October 19, 2003 against Columbus would have clinched United's first playoff spot since 1999 had they not lost the game in the final minute of overtime.
Petke's best goal came in the 2004 regular season finale against his former team. In the 64th minute, Freddy Adu swung in a corner kick that Petke powered past MetroStars goalkeeper Jonny Walker to give United a 3-2 lead. The victory propelled United over the Metros into second place in the Eastern Conference. For those who remembered the overtime game-winner against United on April 22, 2000 at RFK Stadium, Petke's transformation had come full circle.
As United stormed through the playoffs, Petke raised his game to possibly his best-ever form. In MLS Cup 2004, he was superb, barely allowing Kansas City Wizards forwards Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud, who were responsible for 18 goals combined during the regular season, a look at goal. After five years stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, it only took two years with United for Petke to become a champion.
This season, Petke scored one goal, from yet another back-post run, in the 40th minute of the home opener against the Chicago Fire, before being dealt to the Colorado Rapids on May 23 as part of a three-way trade which saw United receive an allocation from the Columbus Crew.
In a lifetime of watching sports, I've seen many of my favorite players traded, but few in my adult years have hurt as much as hearing the news about Petke. The day the trade was announced, I reminded myself of the words of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, "It's not personal ... It's strictly business."
Although Petke was only a member of D.C. United for a little more than two years, he accomplished enough during his tenure here to make many of us forget that he was ever a member of our rivals to the north.
David Lifton is a contributor to dcunited.com. He is a member of the Screaming Eagles and longtime supporter of D.C. United.
Mike Petke (2003-2005)