It doesn’t seem long ago that a 22-year-old Mike Petke was taking the field at Giants Stadium, wearing the red and black of the MetroStars.
He made his names as a physical defender and became a fan favorite for his dyed-blonde hair. He had phases during his 13-year MLS career where he had a nose ring, earrings, multiple hair styles (and colors) to go along with other colorful fashion statements.
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But on Saturday afternoon at Red Bull Arena, Petke will be on the sidelines with jet-black hair and a suit for what will be his first home game as New York’s head coach. He’s 37 years old now and just two games into his MLS coaching career (the Red Bulls have started the season with a tie and a loss on the road) and there’s plenty to learn for the boy from Bohemia, N.Y.
A first-round draft pick of the MetroStars in 1998, Petke’s career has come full circle and a fan base that loved his full-throttle style of play will surely show its appreciation before the game.
“At the end of the day, there’s no arrogance. People know I’m not arrogant or cocky so when I say this, it is meant in a good way,” Petke told Metro. “But this game alone, the first game, I know there’s going to be a lot of friends and family there and I have a great relationship with the supporters. I don’t want it to be about me. I know that some part of it will about me. I understand that, I’m not stupid. I respect and appreciate that.”
I want to show appreciation and love to the supporters and everything but I also want to be focused. It’s tough. But the feeling of going out to be the head coach for my first home game at Red Bull Arena against D.C. United keeps becoming storyline after storyline for me. It’s exciting.”
Eight years of his MLS career were spent in New York, first with the MetroStars and then again in 2008 following their rebranding as the Red Bulls. He is the club’s all-time leader in appearances and was on the roster in 2000 and 2010 for what were arguably the franchise’s best seasons in their history. But a MLS Cup has always eluded a team as snake bitten as any in MLS and it is hoped that Petke can finally bring the Red Bulls some hardware.
Two weeks ago, on Saturday in the team hotel in Portland, Ore. prior to their season opener against the Timbers, Petke was going through the final details for the next day’s game. It was then and there that it dawned on him that he was coaching the team that meant so much to him, and had ushered him to icon status.
Petke is paramount to a legend among the hardcore fans who have supported this team though the many downs and few ups associated with following the Red Bulls. When he retired in 2010, he was given the job of Manager of Business Operations but he quickly found his way back to the field as an assistant coach.
“I took a position on steroids is what I like to call. It was three or four job descriptions rolled into one,” Petke said. “It took only a month or two to realize I wasn’t meant for an office and that I belonged on a field.”
And now after two years as an assistant coach, he has his team on his terms, just like in 1998 when he was that young, gutsy rookie on the MetroStars. Only this time, the hair is a little different.
Follow Red Bulls beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.