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Major League Soccer

Mike Petke on MLS Return: "It's Like a Glove—It Fits"

The former New York Red Bulls icon is now head coach for Real Salt Lake, and ASN Contributor Editor Brian Sciaretta spoke with the popular Petke to discuss his departure from New York and his plans in Utah.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
April 14, 2017
4:00 PM

THE NEW YORK RED BULLS possess an impressive alumni base that features global superstars, World Cup winners, and many United States national team veterans. Among fans, however, the most popular figure is undoubtedly Mike Petke, a Long Island native who played nearly 170 games over two stints with the team and served as head coach from 2013-2014

Petke, 41, was an unequivocal success as coach. In his first season he led the team to the Supporters Shield—its first-ever major trophy. Then, in 2014, he guided the Red Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals, where it narrowly lost to New England.

Following the 2014 season, however, Petke was unceremoniously fired, sending Red Bulls fans into a now-famous rage. While the team has found some success under his replacement, Jesse Marsch, Petke remains extremely popular in New York and New Jersey.

Over the winter, Petke returned to coaching when he accepted the top position at the Real Monachs, Real Salt Lake's USL affiliate. When RSL started the 2017 season with three losses and two ties, RSL management gave coach Jeff Cassar  his walking papers and Petke took over the top job.  

Petke made an impressive return to the league on Saturday, leading Real Salt Lake to a 3-0 win over Vancouver in a snow storm. Petke spoke with American Soccer Now about his return to coaching.

AMERICAN SOCCER NOW: How does it feel to be back in MLS?

MIKE PETKE: It's like a glove. It fits. It's who I am and it's what I want to do. Even with being with the Monarchs for a bit, it was a great fit, getting back up to speed. Now getting back here, it's great. Let's roll our sleeves up and get to work. It's been a great transition.

ASN: You were away from MLS for a few years. What was that period for you like?

PETKE: Initially it was tough. Very tough. I did have a severance package which carried me through one year. There were stipulations in there about non-competes and not being able to work as far as coaching. But again it gave me a good opportunity to sit back and spend time with my family and decompress a little bit. Then I went into TV and radio to stay close to the game and keep my mind sharp in terms of analyzing the game and learning a little bit more. Then I had an opportunity to work with New Jersey youth soccer—which I jumped on. I am not somebody who likes to just sit around and wait for the phone to ring for a coaching job. I immersed myself in that. I had a few opportunities to get back into coaching but it just didn't quite fit. And then this opportunity came up which was great. It was an ideal situation for me. 

ASN: Were you surprised that RSL ownership would make a coaching change so quickly into the season?

PETKE: I was caught off-guard like a lot of people were. It happened so quickly. But coaching is coaching. The good thing about this is that I was close in proximity to the Real Salt Lake team. I was observing practices and I was with them in preseason to get to know people and personalities. The adjustment and the switch was literally getting up out of one office and moving down the hall to another office. That wasn't was too bad. But yes, it happened so quickly.

ASN: What are the specific challenges facing Real Salt Lake that you want to fix? What are the solutions?

PETKE: I don't think it would be fair of me to comment on the past. But looking forward to the future and during the interview process, the No. 1 thing for me was to make sure we were all on the same page. There can't be any chips in the armor. We spent a lot of time talking about that. From there, it's about coming in here and balancing how much to change right away or take your foot off the gas pedal and let it change naturally. That's the way to go here because the season had started. The big thing here was just to find out how to get points and where to improve because even through it is early, you don't want to fall behind too much early. Saturday's [win over Vancouver] was a good first step. Does that mean we will win this weekend? No. Each game is an opportunity to improve and implement our training.

ASN: You mentioned improvement—what specific areas of need improving?

PETKE: There are many things but instead of me throwing 10 things at them, I did two things at a time. I thought defensively we were too deep. I like to see our starting positions be a heck of a lot higher so we can win the ball higher and transition to offense. That was one thing we really worked on. I felt they did a fantastic job against Vancouver. Another thing is that I want players who want the ball—especially building possession out of the back. The number of times we built good possession out of the back on Saturday blew my mind. We did a very good job opening the game and moving forward. But it comes down to players wanting the ball and understanding why we want to do this.

ASN: I know things can change in this league very quickly but how far is the team from where you want it to be?

PETKE: I don't want to put that stamp on it—that we're either far away or close. Forget about the games, I think if the team continues to train the way we have this past week and continues to hear, apply, and accept what we're trying to do, then I think anything is possible. I don't think we're very far behind. We have the talent and mentality of players that understand and want to do some things differently. Those are the most important things.

ASN: Real Salt Lake has an interesting mix of players. It has a core group of aging players but also four players on the United States U-20 national team: Justen Glad, Sebastian Saucedo, Brooks Lennon, and Danny Acosta. Is that a tricky dynamic to manage?

PETKE: The age doesn't concern me. We have a good mix of veteran players, players who have World Cup experience, players who have European experience, and we have a number of players who have come up through our own academy. We have four players I am assume will be playing at the U-20 World Cup this summer and they came up through our academy. For me that is unbelievable. So we have a good mix.

For the players that are getting on in years, it's about them understanding and taking care of themselves better—which I know they do. Also, it's about them identifying their exact roles. Do I expect Kyle Beckerman to play box-to-box for 90 minutes? No. I actually don't want that. It's about him specifying his role because he's our captain with so much experience. He is and can continue to be one of our most important players.

ASN: Do you plan to be a manager who gives playing time to young players?

PETKE: My answer is that I could care less how old the player is. I could care less about how much experience he has. What I do care about is that in the four days of training in between games that player shows me he is the best player for that position. If he does, he is going to play. That is what we saw with Danny Acosta. When Tony Beltran went down with an injury during the week, we were observing Danny. He's a player who put himself into a position to play. I could have easily moved Chris Wingert or a central defender over to right back, or someone with more experience. But for me, I don't think that makes sense. If a player shows he is ready, how else is he going to get more experience but by playing in these games? I thought Danny really stepped up to the occasion. He showed well.

ASN: In a very broad sense, what do you value as a coach? What do you want a Mike Petke-coached team to look like?

PETKE: In my ideal world, it's a team that is balanced for 90 minutes. That is very big for me. Players whoknow their roles in exact positions. We've started working a great deal on players identifying, when they're in the attack, to put themselves in good defensive positions as well in case it breaks down. I think we did that well against Vancouver. I like transitions—quick transitions. Winning the ball, or when you lose it being in position to win it back. Those are just a couple of things that are ideal for me and things we started to work on.

ASN: When you were coaching the Red Bulls, you had Thierry Henry. Then you look at a lot of teams that have had success in recent years. Robbie Keane at the Los Angeles Galaxy and last year's finals featured Sebastian Giovinco and Nicolas Lodeiro. How important is it to have expensive designated players in this league? Do you need that to win in MLS?

PETKE: Not at all. A right player with the right attitude can greatly help. The thing with big-name, high-talent players coming over from Europe is that they need to do their homework on this league. We need to do our due diligence with being very honest and up front before we sign these players. We need to say, "Listen, you're going to be on six-hour plane rides, in coach, across the country, then playing the next day in 98-degree heat." These are things that some players did not know what they were getting themselves into. I think the Giovinco and Lodeiro types were great signings for this league. They're players that are coming over in their prime and could have gone to other European teams—but chose to come here. We're seeing with those two that the payoff can be huge.

ASN: Have you grown or changed since you coached the Red Bulls?

PETKE: Of course. I've learned from my mistakes and I've taken my successes and am now looking to add onto them. I was a very raw and unproven coach when I got that job. But of course I am going to say Yes when it is offered to me. If I was a multi-millionaire, perhaps it would have been easier to say, "I am not ready for this. Let me continue to develop as a coach and hopefully I can get here one day." [Laughs] You take the opportunities that are given you and you try to make the most out of them. I learned back then on a daily basis. But this organization is very different from the New York organization. I have a bit more control here. I can implement my ideas and my thought processes here—not just on the field but throughout the organization a heck of a lot better. You always want to be in a situation where you're being supported and given the tools to succeed.

ASN: You were so beloved by the fans in New York, both as a coach and as a player. When you look back on that period, do you remember the good times or the messy departure? Are you bitter?

PETKE: Not at all. I am over it now. It took me a while. That was my family for over 10 years. I compared it back then to your parents telling you one day that we don't want you to be our son anymore. Initially it was very hard to take in that concept. But I understand and I've always said they have every right to fire me. It's part of the job and they make decisions. To me, I was never given a straight answer and I don't need one anymore. I am in a good place right now. I am very happy with my current situation.

ASN: I know Real Salt Lake recently played at Red Bull Arena before you took the job. But do you ever think about what it will be like when you coach RSL in New Jersey? Obviously the fans will give you a big homecoming. I'd imagine that your ties to the Red Bulls fans continue on to this day.

PETKE: Listen, I am a loyal person. It's like I tell my kids, "Just because Daddy got fired from the Red Bulls, if that is the team you support and have grown up with, you can't just snap your fingers and not like something." Loyalty is big for me. But they're obviously RSL fans now. [Laughs] I'll always have a place in my heart for the supporters of the Red Bulls. They've been good to me and I like to think I've been good to them as well because I've always been honest with them. Whenever I get a chance to go back there I expect some nice interaction with them but once the whistle blows, I expect them to boo me and hope my team loses because they're loyal.

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