clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mike Petke starts Real Salt Lake head coach stint with 3-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps

Second time this year that Petke has started a new coaching gig with a win. Not a bad record at all.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Petke is perhaps the least-respected successful coach in MLS. He won the Supporters' Shield in his first year as a head coach in the league, won it coaching the notoriously trophy-averse New York Red Bulls - delivered the first meaningful silverware in the club's history - and Caleb Porter won MLS Coach of the Year for taking Portland Timbers to the third-best record in the league in 2013. The following season, Petke guided RBNY to the Eastern Conference playoff final - at that point, just the third time in the team's history that it had got that far in the post-season - and was fired before the start of the 2015 campaign.

Petke was not an obvious choice to be RBNY head coach in 2013 - he had retired as a player in 2010, and had initially taken a job in the club's front office before being lured to the sidelines to join then head coach Hans Backe's technical staff. When most of that technical staff followed Backe out the door at the end of the 2012 season, and no replacement could be successfully hired before preseason was due to get started, Petke was made head coach.

He made the best of what seemed a bad situation, let his obvious passion for the team stand in for actual coaching experience, and (it seemed) suppressed his instincts and preferences in favor of a pragmatic tactical approach that prioritized playing to the strengths and covering for the weaknesses of star player and captain Thierry Henry. For his troubles, he left RBNY followed by whispers of a lack of tactical acumen and coaching ability - somewhat puzzling criticisms to apply to a coach who was manifestly under-qualified when appointed.

But RBNY clearly felt that the more experienced and accomplished version of the man selected to lead the team was no longer fit for purpose. Soccer is not a business that is necessarily constrained by coherent thought, and clubs offer flimsy pretexts for their decisions all the time (for what it's worth, Petke has said he never received any official reason for his dismissal, but there were reports that the Red Bulls had been courting potential replacements for him well before he was let go - and current RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch was not among those identified as targeted by the club's first efforts to find a new sideline leader). So Petke left RBNY abruptly, but with the sort of achievements that traditionally see a coach quickly employed elsewhere.

Didn't work out that way for Mike Petke. Fired by the Red Bulls at the beginning of 2015, he didn't return to coaching pro soccer until two years later, when he landed the job of managing Real Monarchs in USL. That gig lasted one game: a 2-1 win over Portland Timbers 2. The Monarchs' parent club, Real Salt Lake, fired its head coach Jeff Cassar after a slow start to 2017 followed a lackluster 2016, and reserve-team coach Petke was promoted to run the first team.

He returns to MLS after sufficient absence that his past achievements are perhaps even less valued than they were initially, when he was apparently regarded as having fluked his way into the can't-fail job of watching Thierry Henry win games. There is no Henry or even Henry-equivalent at RSL, nor does he have an obviously senior assistant who has been a head coach in MLS before (such as Robin Fraser, his assistant at RBNY). Petke has a clean slate at RSL, for better or worse. It seems a good fit for a coach who won a big trophy but little respect in his first appointment. He'll win quite a lot of respect if he can get RSL just looking capable of challenging for silverware any time soon.

He inherits a squad badly in need of a fresh start. In 2016, RSL's shaky-at-best form collapsed down the stretch: the team had no wins in its last seven games of the regular season, picking up just three points from those matches, somehow managed to make the playoffs, but was bounced out by LA Galaxy in the play-in round (or knockout round as MLS seems to like to call it - which doesn't make a lot of sense since every round of the playoffs is a knockout round, but that is a digression for another day).

One goal and one point from the first three games of 2017 saw Cassar dismissed, but there was the concern RSL might actually contrive to get worse in his absence. The two games played under interim head coach Daryl Shore produced a scoreless draw at Red Bull Arena (creditable under the circumstances) and a 4-2 loss to the league's slapstick newcomer Minnesota United.

Petke's first stint as a head coach in MLS was with a team - RBNY - that wanted to be considered the best in the league. His second started with one - the early 2017 edition of RSL - that might reasonably be described as the worst in MLS at the moment.

Or it could have been until it kicked off its Petke era with a 3-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps. The Caps have their own concerns, though they are somewhat mitigated by having had CONCACAF Champions League to think about, but RSL is still the only team to have been outscored by Minnesota so far this season. The Caps seem like they should be better than Minnesota.

One win doesn't make RSL good. And, of course, this particular win won't be attributed to any tactical genius on Petke's part. He set the team up to attack the game and watched 45 minutes scoreless minutes of positive but ultimately unsuccessful soccer before it became impossible to ignore the fact the match was being played in a blizzard. The orange ball came out for the second half, and "soccer goes out the window"  when the snow is coming down that thick and fast- as Petke put it in his post-match comments.

Emerging Slovakia international and Manchester City academy product Albert Rusnak seemed to enjoy the conditions, picking up a goal and two assists as RSL made the better of the bad situation, snatching three goals and three points.

Petke finds himself in the not-unfamiliar position of having coached a team to a victory that will ultimately be attributed to factors other than his coaching. If the wins keep coming, neither he nor his players nor the fans of RSL will much mind who gets the credit - as was the case when he was in charge at RBNY.

There will be tougher tests ahead for RSL and Petke, but for one night at least they are enjoying each other's company. Long may it last: best of luck, Coach.