HARRISON, N.J. — The credit goes to the players. The blame goes to the head coach.
That is the philosophy of someone who is currently a deserving candidate for the MLS Coach of the Year award. Someone whose credentials were questioned aplenty upon his initial appointment and who many predicted would not have a job at this point in the season. Someone whose club is at the top of the league standings and on the brink of reaching the postseason.
That someone is Mike Petke.
Ever since that sunny Florida day back in January when it was announced that Petke would be in charge of his beloved New York Red Bulls, the rookie head coach has not stopped learning. And while things have not always looked pretty, the numbers say they have been effective.
“At the end of the day you get judged by results and Mike has done that,” said captain Thierry Henry, who infamously had a spat in practice with Petke in August. “It’s never easy to learn the process while it’s your first year. But like I said [at the start of the season], you’ve got to start one day and he’s starting where people love him and where he’s a club legend, so I would like to think that helped him in a way.
“But great reaction, great attitude. You know how he is. He’s a fighter, he’s trying to put that into the team and at the moment it’s working, definitely.”
It’s more than working. Under Petke, the Red Bulls have been reimagined in the coach's image, most notably a hard-nosed attitude that's led to some big results that, in the past, always seemed to fritter away. There were draws in tough environments in Portland and Seattle, a first-ever win in Houston, victories at home over LA and Real Salt Lake, and a come-from-behind win against Sporting Kansas City, to name a few.
Of course, there have been some slip-ups along the way, such as Petke’s initial deployment of a 4-3-3 formation that did not suit his personnel, his overreliance on a midfield that lacked creativity during the first half of the season, and ugly August results at Toronto FC and Chivas USA. But those type of mistakes were always expected from someone who was learning on a job that was not initially planned to be his and who retired as a player less than three years ago.
“We all know that we’re going to make mistakes, but the thing is with Mike is, he’s a true leader,” said midfielder Tim Cahill. “He was as a footballer and the best thing I love about him is that he’s passionate and you can see it. When someone takes their football home with them, then this is what this club has been waiting for, the fans: someone who really cares and wears their heart on his sleeve and that’s why we’re successful, because he cares.
“It’s important we drum that in to every single player and staff member. This is not just a job, this is people’s lives that we’re playing [for]. … Definitely, he deserves a lot of credit and I’m so happy and proud of him because he was that Reserve Team manager that when I first come here that really helped me a lot [to] find my feet. I’ll never forget it. He deserves his crack and he’s top of the pole and he’s there for a reason.”
Petke may be worthy of being in the Coach of the Year discussion, but he is not giving it much thought these days. Part of that is because he knows all too well how the club tends to have their good moments “come crashing down towards the end.”
And since New York are still not assured of a place in the playoffs, that resonates.
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Of course, they could punch their ticket on Saturday against the New England Revolution (7 pm ET; MLS Live), a match that Petke is not taking for granted no matter how many expectations he and his club have met and surpassed this season.
“It’s tough for me to sit back and say what I’m proud that I’ve accomplished or think that I’ve done well,” Petke offered. “I’m very happy about the wins that we’ve had but I credit the players for the most part because they are the ones out there who are living it and I’m the one on the sidelines freaking out.
“I think we’ve had some very good moments this year but the moments that are going to define us are ahead of us, starting with this Saturday. Everything could be erased with what we’ve done this year in the next three games if we don’t have the right mentality, the right mindset and we don’t go out there and perform right.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.