The New York Red Bulls front office and their new Sporting Director, Ali Curtis, announced that they have fired Head Coach Mike Petke. The fallout from this decision is enormous, I have never read more comments of anger and frustration from Red Bulls fans on social media. The club did more PR damage in a span of eight hours than it has done in many years.
On a personal note, after a very long day I checked my phone late Tuesday night before I was going to go to sleep, and saw the alert on social media that Petke had been fired. My initial reaction was that it was a rumor because the timing to me did not make sense. Coach Petke had overseen arguably the most successful two year run in the history of the club, he had just signed a new contract, and it is very late in the off season for this type of move. The draft combine is about to begin, the Super Draft is next week, and preseason camp opens a month from now. All of those factors combined to make me very skeptical that the report was true.
Then I began to think about the changes in the front office, about how a different Sporting Director had hired Petke to coach the team. Ali Curtis just took over a few days before Christmas, so if he was going to make a move, he would wait until after the holidays, which means the timing would make sense. I started to get concerned and I was up until 1:30 AM reading Facebook posts, Twitter updates (#Petke was a major trending topic at 1 AM on Twitter), and commenting back and forth with fellow fans I know through social media.
I learned of the decision that the front office had fired Mike Petke through a social media alert on my smart phone. I used that same device very early Wednesday morning to communicate with fans I have known, some for 3 years or more, in a situation that fully captures how we obtain news in the social media driven new world of today. In the past, we would have been listening to a radio late at night, last night I was on my phone, sending messages at a fever pitch with fellow fans who were just as shocked as I was at that moment.
These fans are people who work hard during the week and go to Red Bulls matches on the weekends. They have fully embraced the team through the ups and the downs, the winning streaks and the losing skids. I have never felt more palpable anger and frustration from these same people as I did in the fallout of the report of Petke's firing.
Some blamed upper management and not Ali Curtis, most of them blamed the ownership in Europe, and still others felt it was in fact the decision of Curtis to bring in his "own guy". That all to me did not matter as much as what Mike Petke represented. I feel like the upper management, and certainly the ownership in Austria did not understand, that Petke bridged the divide in the fan base. He played for the MetroStars during that phase of the history of the club, and the fans loved him. He was my favorite player on those teams for his aggressive style and fearless passion for the game.
The other major problem myself and other fans had with this decision was that Petke could coach competently. It was not like he was a former popular player who was in over his head. In his two seasons at the helm, he led the Red Bulls to the Supporters Shield trophy in 2013 and to within one game of the MLS Cup Championship game in 2014. His players responded to him and the fans loved his energy and "in your face" coaching style.
A fan wrote on Facebook today that he was at the MLS Cup Playoff match in Massachusetts against the Revolution and shook Coach Petke's hand after the game. Petke told him he planned to do everything in his power to get the fans the MLS Cup in 2015. That is the type of determination and fire that he had as a coach. I do not think anyone, let alone the next guy in his position will possess.
Petke was a "throwback" to the core fans, like myself, who have been with the team from the beginning, 20 years ago. He made us all think about the old days of the MetroStars era, of humid summer nights in Giants Stadium watching those teams play rivals like the D.C. United and teams like the Miami Fusion which no longer exist. Some fans I know who were reluctant to embrace the change to the Red Bulls eventually did so because they hired Mike Petke to coach the team. Now, those same fans are ready to jump ship.
I do not know where the Red Bulls front office and management go from here, sure they will hire a replacement (rumors are that they have already) but the public relations problems will remain. The more pressing issue is that I do not know how they will repair the damage that has been done by this decision. Mike Petke was beloved as a player and a coach, and he is gone very close to the start of a 2015 season that the fans were already skeptical about with the departure of Thierry Henry.
The Red Bulls have made no big player signings and no personnel moves really of note in weeks. The fans on social media that I know are all talking about cancelling their season and partial ticket plans. The business side of the operation is going to take a hit at a time when they are competing with another team in their marketplace, New York City FC, for the first time. It is the absolute worst timing for a decision that could hurt the sales of tickets and alienate the fan base.
However, one fan put it best when stating that the hard core fans of the "South Ward" were looking for something to unite them. He stated now they can be united in their frustration with the front office over the firing of Mike Petke. This decision will have long term effects on this club and the fans. No matter what plans they roll out in the future, they might realize that nothing justified this decision at this time. The fans will not let management forget that anytime soon.