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Red Bulls vets reflect on Mike Petke's legacy ahead of reunion game vs. RSL

HARRISON, N.J. – Luis Robles remembers a moment in 2013 during Mike Petke’s first year as head coach of the New York Red Bulls, a moment he says helped transform him into the goalkeeper he is today.

Back then the player now known as RBNY’s “Ironman” was anything but a known commodity. An early-spring training session had just finished at Red Bull Arena, and Robles didn’t have one of his best outings. Petke was in his first year as a head coach, a club icon and fan favorite as a player seeking bigger and better things from an already-strong side featuring the likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.

Following training, Petke pulled Robles aside, and wrapped his arm around the then-28-year-old goalkeeper.

“He said ‘Hey, you got this. Start showing people what kind of goalkeeper you are.’ And then it just seems like from that moment on, it’s been a completely different story,” Robles told MLSsoccer.com this week. “My first start came under Hans Backe, but he’s the guy who continued to believe in me when things weren’t going well. Then we went on to have a great 2013.

“As a player, he had a ferocity to him that fans loved. He had a competitiveness that was huge, but then he also brings it as a coach. I think that’s why we were successful in 2013, because the same type of competitive streak he had.”

Petke hoists the 2013 Supporters' Shield | USA Today Sports Images

Petke’s 2013 team would ride through a rough start to the season and get hot by mid-summer, and eventually win the Supporters’ Shield, the club’s first-ever major trophy.

On Saturday, the Red Bulls will face Petke for the first time since he was fired following the 2014 season when they travel to Rio Tinto Stadium to play Real Salt Lake (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE; on DAZN in Canada). For the handful of players left from the Petke years, the memories of their former head coach and his influence remain strong.

It was quite fitting that the most beloved player in franchise history would finally give the team their first piece of hardware after 18 years in the wilderness. A Long Island native, Petke climbed from unheralded draft pick in 1998 to All-Star honors in 2000, alongside onetime MetroStar Lothar Matthaus.

His play that year was so good that he turned down a contract offer from German side Kaiserslautern to re-sign with the MetroStars, an unthinkable decision at the time – but such was Petke’s love for the team.

An underdog as a player, as a coach he proved willing to give obscure talents a chance. In his first year in charge of the Red Bulls, he gave a little-known English forward a shot. Fast-forward six years, and Bradley Wright-Phillips is now one of the most feared strikers in the history of MLS.

At the time, Wright-Phillips was perceived mainly as the less successful son of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, and brother of Shaun, a winger with 36 England caps to his name. Petke saw something in Wright-Phillips that he liked, and after a trial stint, he signed him.

Petke and Wright-Phillips in 2014 | USA Today Sports Images

“Mike Petke, I owe that man a lot for playing me and believing in me,” Wright-Phillips told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday before recalling his favorite moment with Petke.

“The Shield,” said the man now known across MLS as BWP. “Winning the Shield. That was Red Bull’s first, it was a big moment for everyone involved. It’s a big moment for him, a reason why he’s trusted in this league as a manager. He has the stats to back it up. He did well here and he’s loved by the fans. I’m no different.”

RSL are coming off a tough weekend, a 5-1 home loss to expansion side LAFC. After the game, true to his character, Petke apologized to ownership and the fanbase for the embarrassing result. He didn’t make any excuses. He didn’t pin blame on anyone or anything else. He talked about it being a gut-check moment for his young squad.

It was the same sort of approach he used during his two years as head coach of the Red Bulls – the backbone, character and conviction that led the Red Bulls to the Supporters Shield in 2013 and within a game of MLS Cup the next year. That same moxie that helped turn around a ho-hum season in 2013, his former players think will lead to change in Salt Lake.

Looking on from across two mountain ranges and three time zones, the players from his two years as head coach in New York know that the team they will face this weekend won’t look anything like the squad that underperformed against LAFC.

“If I know anything, the next game, our game, isn’t going to look like that. He’s going to go in, shake things up and let them know it isn’t good enough,” Wright-Phillips said. “It’ll make things harder for us.”