There are probably more than a few Real Salt Lake fans out there scouring search engines to glean some insight into their newest head coach, Mike Petke, who was formally appointed on Wednesday as the fourth manager in club history.
Although they're probably familiar with his name especially after he guided RSL's Real Monarchs reserve side to a win in his first and only official match last weekend, it's been more than two full years since Petke last coached in MLS. That's when he led his hometown New York Red Bulls team to their first piece of significant hardware (2013 Supporters' Shield) in his first year as head coach, guiding the team into the playoffs in his first two seasons on the job (2013, 2014) before unceremoniously receiving the axe.
And those details will surely lead to more questions.
Stats and achievements only tell part of the story of Mike Petke. Here is a deeper look at the man set to take the touchline at the RioT.
Petke, the man
ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman shared a tweet Wednesday afternoon stating that RSL were looking for a “disciplinarian” to fill their head coaching vacancy – and Petke certainly fits the description.
Petke is a throwback to the days of yore, when head coaches served more as the sideline generals than analytic professors. Statistics will certainly be an instrument he will use to better his team, but he isn’t defined by them. Instead, he uses his plainspoken approach to drive players towards success.
In other words, he is more of a motivator than a mastermind.
Now, that attribute can prove a double-edged sword. While his infectious optimism and passion served to propel the Red Bulls through difficult situations, his honest and unfiltered approach did, at times, turn some players off. Two years removed from that New York experience, it remains to be seen how much, if any, his style has changed.
That same attitude also meant Petke was comfortable confronting anyone, if necessary. Look no further than his tete-a-tete with Thierry Henry back in 2013. The then-rookie head coach and his World Cup-winning French striker had a memorable argument at practice that eventually led Petke to bench Henry against hated rival D.C. United – in the heat of the playoff chase at the turn of September.
Ultimately his gamble paid off: The Red Bulls went undefeated in their next eight matches (6-0-2) and they captured the first piece of hardware in club history – the 2013 Supporters’ Shield.
What can drive a rookie boss to take on one of soccer’s most revered players of all time? In short, his competitiveness – perhaps Petke’s most defining characteristic of all.
Petke does not like to lose – and that is putting it mildly. It won’t be a rare sight for RSL fans or the media to see him stewing at the dais mere moments after a loss, fighting his own emotions before he even begins to take on the reporters.
Petke, the tactician
RSL fans may look to Petke’s Red Bull tenure to find out just how he will transform their side. And while a natural thing to do, guiding yourself by the past is a fool’s errand, particularly when addressing Petke’s history.
Keep in mind – back in 2013, Petke was far from the first choice the Red Bull organization had lined up for their head coaching job. New York initially sought a strong European mind to guide their star-laden roster to an MLS Cup. Once Gary McAllister and Paolo Sousa skipped on the opportunity, and with the MLS SuperDraft bearing down on them, RBNY were left with no choice but to give the job to Petke – contrary to ownership's wishes at the time.
That meant Petke was always on a short leash throughout his two-year tenure at the Red Bulls. And because of this, he took a conservative approach to his coaching. He placed the Red Bulls into a very basic, counterattack-minded 4-4-2, with a heavy emphasis on wing play and defensive positioning. He played it safe and exposed the weaknesses of his opponents to find success.
Ultimately, the approach worked – he not only won the Shield, but earned a contract extension by the end of his first season.
However, he won’t be coaching in fear at RSL. With club owner Dell Loy Hansen giving his full backing to the Long Island native, Petke will likely take a different approach – a more offensive one. For a window into that system, look back at the first six matches of the Red Bulls' 2013 season when Petke tried to implement a modified 4-3-3 system which emphasized freedom in attack, interchanging play between the forwards and the midfielders with a reliance on leadership from his core stars Tim Cahill, Juninho Pernambucano and Henry to guide the attack.
The results never came – the team compiled a 1-3-2 record – and he didn't have the chance to see where that formation could take them. After a loss to a winless Chicago Fire team in April 2013, Petke and his coaching staff opted in favor of pragmatism for the rest of that season.
At RSL, Petke will finally have the backing he always wished he had at RBNY.
No, Petke doesn’t come to Utah with the reputation as a tactical genius. But for a team that needs to rediscover its identity and its passion for the badge, there are few who can rekindle those emotions quite like Petke. He commits to an organization like few others do, and his loyalty will make him an immediate hero with the local supporters.
But there's another factor at play: Mike Petke has a chip on his shoulder. And if you were in his shoes, you probably would, too. After all, it is not many coaches who win the Shield in their first season only to go two years without another opportunity at the top level of professional soccer.
Petke comes to RSL with something to prove. And if his career history is any indication, those are precisely the moments when he finds the most success.