Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke has 28 games on the job and he is still very much learning. But he isn’t changing as a person.
When Petke talks about coaching his Red Bulls — yes, his Red Bulls — a huge smile comes across his face. Then the smile turns to worry and he begins to run his right hand over his forehead. Petke is caught up in his dream job while faced with the grim reality that the team he took over this past offseason is still very much a work in progress. For a man who appeared in 169 league games for this franchise, it is something that consumes him in the quest for New York’s first MLS Cup in franchise history.
“I thought I was doing a better job of not taking my work home with me but I’m not doing a better job in that aspect, apparently, according to my family,” Petke told Metro. “But when you have a passion for something and you want things to work out and you feel like you’re doing as much as you can to make them work out and it doesn’t work out every day, someone with my mentality it is very tough to deal with. That’s definitely one of those things experience will bring me in years to come — learning how to not be so emotional and read things. I’d like to say that I learned my lesson with the red card [in August against Sporting Kansas City], but who knows? I’m a heat of the moment kind of guy. This job would be a lot easier if I didn’t care. This job would be really easy if I didn’t care.”
But there is an adjustment for a man who spent the last two years as an assistant coach under Hans Backe, especially one as emotional as Petke. To star player and captain Thierry Henry, nothing has changed about the man he calls his head coach. He is still, according to Henry several weeks ago, “someone who cares incredibly and passionately about this team, about this club. Nothing has changed about Mike in my eyes.”
Of course, Henry and Petke had to be separated during practice two weeks ago, an altercation that led to Henry being benched for the first half against D.C. United before entering in the 55th minute.
That’s the passion New York fans love from Petke — but it has always been that way for their head coach.
Late in the 2000 regular season, four days after Tampa Bay forward Mamadou Diallo punctured the lung and cracked the ribs of MetroStars goalkeeper Mike Ammann, Petke scored a goal in the following game against the Rapids. He ripped off his MetroStars jersey during the goal celebration to reveal a shirt that read “August 16: Crime of the Century” and on the back said “Revenge is Coming.” He drew a hefty fine from MLS.
Last month, Petke served a one-game suspension following a match where he left the technical area and used inappropriate language toward a game official. Not much has changed, even as he has given up a jersey for a suit.
You can take off the uniform and cleats and throw a suit and tie on the man but you can’t change that fiery demeanor, not for one second. He acknowledges to learning and growing in his first year as a head coach and becoming more comfortable in a role that requires him to be a psychiatrist at one moment and a motivational speaker the next. He’s more at ease now than when he took over the team in late January, just five weeks before the start of the regular season. He’s growing as a head coach, but comfortable? Not a chance.
“I think enough people critique me from the press to my boss to, I’m sure, players. I’ve learned a lot and I feel like I do think I put things in place. I think there’s a long way for me to go to be a successful, consistent coach,” Petke said. “But I’m OK with that, I know it’s a learning process. One thing I’ll never be is a cliché — a typical comfortable coach. The minute that happens, it is time to do something else.”
Follow Red Bulls beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.